Whenever antibiotic resistance hits the news, reports often read as though this is a new occurrence. Adding to this sentiment, scientists commonly express surprise at how fast bacteria developed resistance to the miracle antibiotic drugs when they were developed less than 100 years ago.

Now, scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada have found that antibiotic resistance has been around for tens of thousands of years. The breakthrough came after years of studying bacterial DNA extracted from soil frozen in 30,000-year-old permafrost from the Yukon Territories.

Research findings published Aug. 31 in the science journal Nature show antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon that predates the modern clinical antibiotic use. Principal investigators for the study are Gerry Wright, scientific director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research and Hendrik Poinar, McMaster evolutionary geneticist.

"Antibiotic resistance is seen as a current problem, and the fact that antibiotics are becoming less effective because of resistance spreading in hospitals is a known fact," says Wright. "The big question is where does all of this resistance come from?"

Researchers discovered antibiotic resistant genes existed beside genes that encoded DNA for ancient life, such as mammoths, horse and bison as well as plants only found in that locality during the last interglacial period in the Pleistocene era, at least 30,000 years ago. They focused on a specific area of antibiotic resistance to the drug vancomycin, a significant clinical problem that emerged in 1980s and continues to be associated with outbreaks of hospital-acquired infections worldwide. (Read more.)

Wright says the breakthrough will have important impact on the understanding of antibiotic resistance: "Antibiotics are part of the natural ecology of the planet so when we think that we have developed some drug that won't be susceptible to resistance or some new thing to use in medicine, we are completely kidding ourselves. These things are part of our natural world and therefore we need to be incredibly careful in how we use them. Microorganisms have figured out a way of how to get around them well before we even figured out how to use them."

This research means recommendations for judicious antimicrobial use in livestock are more important than ever. That’s because antibiotic resistance isn’t going away any time soon, nor are non-ag folks backing away from scrutinizing how carefully animal ag uses antibiotics on-farm, often perpetuating perceptions that may not always be accurate.

For example, even a New York Times article describing the McMaster University research on the fact that antibiotic resistance has been around for thousands of years still links antibiotic resistance to livestock-rearing practices, quoting Stuart Levy, a microbiologist at Tufts University who says, “It’s almost an embarrassment that we are still using antibiotics in animal feed for growth promotion when all of Europe has abandoned the practice.”

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) will host a national forum Oct. 26-27 in Rosemont, Ill., in which experts in animal agriculture, researchers in the area of livestock health, and experts in human health will come together to develop a dialogue with the common purpose of sharing fact-based information about the use of antibiotics in the sustainable production of food.