The small, spiky, and endearing hedgehog is assisting in the overturning of traditional understanding about the origins of drug-resistant bacterial illnesses, which claim the lives of thousands of humans each year in the United States.
Researchers from across the world discovered that the bacterium that causes a difficult-to-treat illness existed in nature long before current antibiotics were mass-produced, according to a research published Wednesday in Nature by a consortium of international scientists. Aside from the fact that they have saved countless lives, the widespread distribution of antibiotics throughout society in the decades since then has triggered an evolutionary arms race with the pathogens they are designed to combat, leading to the emergence of dreaded superbugs that have eluded our efforts to eradicate them with pharmaceuticals.
Hundreds of dead hedgehogs from Denmark and other nations in western Europe were studied by experts, who discovered MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, on the skin of the great majority of the creatures. That was unexpected considering that the animals had not been exposed to penicillin; nevertheless, MRSA colonises a wide range of mammals, including humans, where it may dwell harmlessly inside the nose or on the skin, as was the case in this study. People with compromised immune systems are at risk when these germs enter the circulation via a wound or intravenous line, with potentially fatal implications for those who do not have enough protection.
They were also interested by another infection they discovered on several of the same hedgehogs: a skin fungus that generates a penicillin-like chemical that inhibits the development of staphylococcus aureus, which was discovered by the scientists. It is similar to current antimicrobials in that this naturally produced antibiotic is always engaged in an arms race with the staph bacteria that compete for resources on the hedgehog’s skin. According to the findings of the research, some of those bacteria evolved the capacity to outwit their fungal adversaries and flourish on their hedgehog hosts over time.
Researchers were able to establish a timeline of the evolution of the hedgehog-borne mecC-MRSA through genetic coding, which dates back to the early 1800s, long before Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered a speck of mould in a petri dish that was repelling a spreading Staphylococcus colony in his laboratory.
In a statement, scientist Anders Rhod Larsen, who was the paper’s primary author, said the results “add a fresh wrinkle to the popular narrative” that the misuse of antibiotics was exclusively responsible for the growth of superbugs. According to Dr. Larsen, who is the director of the National Reference Laboratory for Antimicrobial Resistance at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, the major message is that MRSA predates antibiotic usage in humans. “However, the bigger idea is that we are not alone in this planet,” he added.
Researchers who were not engaged in the research said that the data helped to support long-held hypotheses about the dynamics of antibiotic resistance that had previously been made. Antimicrobial chemicals, after all, are common in nature, and bacteria and fungi have long developed strategies for outsmarting these molecules and surviving.
Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University College of Public Health who specialises in livestock-associated MRSA, said the study contributed to greater awareness of the role that animals played as reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance. “Animals are important reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance,” she added. “It really really emphasises the need for improved antibiotic stewardship and the need of paying attention to what we’re doing with antibiotics, both in human health and animal care,” she said.
The mecC-MRSA that infected the hedgehogs did not seem to be harmful to them, but the overwhelming abundance of the bacteria on the animals collected from Denmark was consistent with the incidence of mecC-MRSA among people in that country. Although mecC-MRSA was first found in 2011, it has now spread to dairy farms across northern Europe, where it may sometimes cause infections in cows but has very rarely caused illness in people.
As another lead author of the publication and a prominent researcher at Statens Serum Institut, Jesper Larsen expressed his delight that his and other researchers have already been influenced by the findings to broaden their research into antibiotic resistance in wild animals. However, he warned against the assumption that naturally existing resistance in bacteria made it less urgent to reduce the use of antimicrobial medications to treat sickness in people.
Dr. Larsen went on to say that the research may have taught him yet another lesson. Despite the fact that the chances of people catching MRSA from hedgehogs are very low, keeping a safe distance from the animals has always been a good idea.