Soil bacteria and fungi are a rich source of natural antibiotics, but the prevalence of human-made antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes in soils, is an emerging concern. Antibiotics are widely used to promote livestock growth in modern non-organic agriculture, with poultry, cattle and pigs, being regularly treated with these antibacterial drugs. Millions of kilograms of antibiotics are released into the environment annually, much in the excrement of grazing animals, or through application of manure to agricultural fields(1). Discharge of human waste into waterways and the use of contaminated irrigation water or sewerage sludge to fertilise crops in many countries, is also a contributory cause. As a result, a higher level of antibiotic resistance is now apparent in conventional agricultural versus natural forest soils(2).
Soil and water-containing antibiotics constitute a potential route of human exposure to antibiotic resistance genes through their uptake by plants(3-8). Uptake by plants can also have other effects, such as the accumulation of nitrofuran-type antibiotics in the edible parts of spring onions, and the subsequent metabolism of these into genotoxic and potentially carcinogenic hydrazine-containing metabolites(9).
The other consideration is the effects these human-made antibiotics have on the soil or plants themselves. With human and animal health being intrinsically connected to that of plants and soil, and increasing research showing the many symbiotic and complex relationships between living organisms and their environment, effects of human-made antibiotics on plant health, should also be considered.
The high level of contamination with antibiotic residues and transferable resistance genes in pig manure applied to soil, has been shown to change the antibiotic resistant gene reservoir of the plant microbiome(10). Carrots and lettuce can uptake amoxicillin and tetracycline(4), and tetracycline residues have toxic effects on both root and stems of germinating lettuce seedlings(11). Oxytetracycline residues from cattle manure have also been shown to affect the diversity and type of nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria communities(12).
A recent European study has shown that even small amounts of antibiotics can have a range of potentially negative effects on plant traits(13). The comprehensive study examined the effects of three antibiotics (penicillin, tetracycline and sulfadiazine), on germination and growth of four plant species. These included two cultivated species (rapeseed, Brassica napus and common wheat, Tricicum aestivum), and two non-crop (herb) species (Shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoria and Common Windgrass, Apera spicaventi). In farmland fertilised with manure containing antibiotic concentrations as typically found in agricultural soils, various effects on the plants were observed.
Main effects were delayed germination or reduced plant biomass. These effects varied markedly depending on the plant species concerned, but were most pronounced in the two herb species, particularly by penicillin and sulfadiazine. This suggests that different antibiotics could potentially affect the prevalence and types of species, and the diversity of natural plant communities near agricultural fields. Furthermore, these species-specific responses may not only alter the competitive abilities and makeup of the plant community, but also have secondary effects on other species such as pollinating and herbivorous insects(13).
Petrochemical residues and the use of non-organic agricultural pesticides and insecticides, are also starting to come under the spotlight as likely contributors to multi-drug antibiotic resistance among soil bacteria. A recent Chinese study has demonstrated that petrochemical residue -polluted soils were more than 15 times more likely than less-contaminated ones, to contain antibiotic resistance genes. This strong association of soil pollution with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, suggests these may also be contributing to the growing amounts of antibiotic resistant genes in human-impacted environments(14).
In non-organic agriculture, soil bacteria can be continuously exposed to synthetic pesticides at sub-lethal concentrations, and a recent Indian study has found that insecticide-contaminated soil may have contributed to development of resistance to a range of different antibiotics, by several Bacillus species(15).
Silver nanoparticles are also now widely used in antibacterial products, and these inevitably discharge into aquatic environments and have been shown to affect the nitrogen cycle in phytoplankton and aquatic plant life(16).
Antimicrobial chemicals such as triclosan and triclocarban, which are used in some liquid soaps and toothpastes, can take a long time to break down in the environment and have been shown to have detrimental effects on aquatic organisms, and potentially contribute to antimicrobial resistance(17-19).
Soil and plant health are pivotal to the health of the planet and all its living organisms, and antibiotic drugs have saved many millions of lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics in non-organic agricultural production systems particularly those involving animals, should be curtailed.
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- Tremblay Louis, Environmental toxicologist, Cawthron Institute, Nelson, New Zealand Herald, 23 June 2017.