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Challenging the Traditional View – Researchers Uncover New Factors in Antibiotic Resistance

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Researchers from the University of British Columbia have discovered a link between micronutrient deficiencies in early life and changes in gut microbiomes, which may contribute to the rising global antibiotic resistance. The study shows that deficiencies in vital nutrients like vitamin A, B12, folate, iron, and zinc lead to an increase in opportunistic pathogens and genes linked to antibiotic resistance in the gut. This finding challenges the traditional view that antibiotic resistance is primarily due to antibiotic overuse, highlighting the role of ‘hidden hunger’ in this global health issue. The study emphasizes the need for comprehensive solutions to address undernutrition and its implications for antibiotic resistance.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia have discovered significant links between early-life micronutrient deficiencies and gut microbiome composition, shedding light on the increasing global issue of antibiotic resistance.

This research focused on understanding the impact of insufficient levels of key micronutrients, including vitamin A, B12, folate, iron, and zinc, on the diverse array of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms residing in the digestive tract.

Micronutrient Deficiencies and Antibiotic Resistance

They discovered that these deficiencies led to significant shifts in the gut microbiome of mice—most notably an alarming expansion of bacteria and fungi known to be opportunistic pathogens.

Importantly, mice with micronutrient deficiencies also exhibited a higher enrichment of genes that have been linked to antibiotic resistance.

“Micronutrient deficiency has been an overlooked factor in the conversation about global antibiotic resistance,” said Dr. Paula Littlejohn, a postdoctoral research fellow with UBC’s department of medical genetics and department of pediatrics, and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. “This is a significant discovery, as it suggests that nutrient deficiencies can make the gut environment more conducive to the development of antibiotic resistance, which is a major global health concern.”

Bacteria naturally possess these genes as a defense mechanism. Certain circumstances, such as antibiotic pressure or nutrient stress, cause an increase in these mechanisms. This poses a threat that could render many potent antibiotics ineffective and lead to a future where common infections could become deadly.

The ‘Hidden Hunger’ and Its Implications

Antibiotic resistance is often attributed to overuse and misuse of antibiotics, but the work of Dr. Littlejohn and her UBC colleagues suggests that the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiencies is another important factor.

“Globally, around 340 million children under five suffer from multiple micronutrient deficiencies, which not only affect their growth but also significantly alter their gut microbiomes,” said Dr. Littlejohn. “Our findings are particularly concerning as these children are often prescribed antibiotics for malnutrition-related illnesses. Ironically, their gut microbiome may be primed for antibiotic resistance due to the underlying micronutrient deficiencies.”

The study offers critical insights into the far-reaching consequences of micronutrient deficiencies in early life. It underscores the need for comprehensive strategies to address undernutrition and its ripple effects on health. Addressing micronutrient deficiencies is about more than overcoming malnutrition, it may also be a critical step in fighting the global scourge of antibiotic resistance.

Reference: “Multiple micronutrient deficiencies in early life cause multi-kingdom alterations in the gut microbiome and intrinsic antibiotic resistance genes in mice” by Paula T. Littlejohn, Avril Metcalfe-Roach, Erick Cardenas Poire, Ravi Holani, Haggai Bar-Yoseph, Yiyun M. Fan, Sarah E. Woodward and B. Brett Finlay, 16 November 2023, Nature Microbiology.
DOI: 10.1038/s41564-023-01519-3

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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