Canterbury discovery with global potential

by Andy Bryenton

Antibiotics are familiar to anyone who has ever fallen ill with a bacterial infection — a course of medicine which helps the body fight the tiny invaders. But antibiotic resistance is a huge problem in both human and animal medicine, as pathogens develop the ability to shrug off the antibiotic onslaught.

Finding out how bacteria develop a resistance to antibiotics is an important part of future medicine, and a new study from the University of Canterbury has produced interesting results which have implications for how we cultivate food as well as how we tackle ‘superbugs’. The research points to the effects of certain herbicides and how they interact with bacteria down on a microscopic level. 

University of Canterbury Molecular Biology and Genetics Professor Jack Heinemann of the School of Biological Sciences, in UC’s College of Science, says the key finding of the research was that “bacteria respond to exposure to the herbicides by changing how susceptible they are to antibiotics used in human and animal medicine.”

The herbicides studied are three of the most widely used in the world, including New Zealand, Professor Heinemann says. 

“They are among the most common manufactured chemical products to which people, pets and livestock in both rural and urban environments are exposed. These products are sold in the local hardware store and may be used without training, and there are no controls that prevent children and pets from being exposed in home gardens or parks. Despite their ubiquitous use, this University of Canterbury research is the first in the world to demonstrate that herbicides may be undermining the use of a fundamental medicine — antibiotics.”

Professor Heinemann’s paper, “Herbicide ingredients change Salmonella enterica sv. Typhimurium and Escherichia coli antibiotic responses”, was published online in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiology on November 17. This discovery could be the first step toward developing better herbicides which do not have an adverse effect on antibiotic medicine, saving lives around the world — and be the prompt for developing herbicide-free farming and more advanced, easier to implement organic weed control.