USF Student Takes Lead in Study Finding Widespread Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in NY River
Study focused on disease microbes found in Hudson River, implications for rivers elsewhere.
NEW YORK (July 22, 2013) – A University of South Florida doctoral student played a leading role in a new study that found widespread occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Hudson River and is prompting new focus on how disease-causing microbes have inundated the environment.
Suzanne Young, a PhD student in USF’s Department of Integrative Biology, was the lead author in a Journal of Water and Health on microbes identified are resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, drugs commonly used to treat ear infections, pneumonia, salmonella and other ailments, found in the Hudson River. Photo by Nicole Ortega.
Suzanne Young, now studying at USF’s Department of Integrative Biology, was the lead author in the recently published paper in the Journal of Water and Health on microbes identified are resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, drugs commonly used to treat ear infections, pneumonia, salmonella and other ailments.
On repeated visits to 10 locations on the Hudson, the researchers found microbes resistant to ampicillin 84 percent of the time and resistant to tetracycline 38 percent of the time. The antibiotic-resistant bacteria found include potentially pathogenic strains of the genera Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter, Proteus and Escherichia.
“The Hudson has gotten so much better,” said Young, a former student at Lamont and Queens College where she participated in the research project. “If we came up with a sustainable solution, water quality could continue to improve.”
Previous studies in the Hudson have shown that microbe counts go up after heavy rains, when raw sewage is commonly diverted into the river. Some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and rainwater are released into the Hudson each year by wastewater treatment plants.
Lacking the capacity during heavy rains to simultaneously pump runoff from city streets and sewage from buildings, many sewage-treatment plants are forced to divert both streams into the river, in what is known as a combined-sewer overflow. In an ongoing partnership with the environmental group Riverkeeper, scientists at Lamont-Doherty and Queens College at the City University of New York have been tracking water quality in the Hudson and making their results public on Riverkeeper’s website. Their work has confirmed that combined-sewer overflow remains a serious problem, even though the Hudson is generally cleaner than it has been in the past.
Bacteria can also play an important role in the larger environment. As more antibiotic-resistant microbes replace native bacteria, those changes could eventually have an impact on plants and animals.
“Microbial communities can affect the health of the entire ecosystem,” said Young, who now studies how Mississippi water snakes respond to infection with antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
This is not the first time that antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in a river. A 2002 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases found ampicillin-resistant bacteria in the Hudson, as well as 15 other U.S. rivers, including the Mississippi, Ohio and Colorado. This was the first study to firmly link specific microbes to sewage in the Hudson, and to compare results at different locations.
“If you find antibiotic-resistant bacteria in an ecosystem, it’s hard to know where they’re coming from,” said study co-author Andrew Juhl, a microbiologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “In the Hudson, we have a strong case to make that it’s coming from untreated sewage.”
Material from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory science writer Kim Martineau was used in this report.