In a striking display of just how pervasive the superbug menace actually is, researchers have revealed the discovery of antibiotic-resistant genes in remote Arctic soil samples. The genes in question were only first identified a few years ago and have rapidly spread across 100 countries, into areas thousands of miles away with almost no human presence.

"Polar regions are among the last presumed pristine ecosystems on Earth, providing a platform for characterizing pre-antibiotic era background resistance against which we could understand rates of progression of AR (antibiotic-resistance) 'pollution'," explains David Graham, an environmental engineer with 15 years experience studying the transmission of AR genes around the globe.

The new study looked at a specific gene called blaNDM-1. This gene is responsible for producing a protein called NDM-1, which is known for conferring antibiotic resistance in a number of bacteria. The notorious gene was only discovered in 2008, but just two years later it was found in urban surface waters in Delhi, India.

The soil samples examined in this new study were taken from the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard, a remote archipelago north of Norway. The samples were collected in 2013, less than three years after blaNDM-1 was first detected in India outside of clinical settings. This timeframe suggests the antibiotic-resistant gene took a frighteningly short period of time to spread across the globe.

"This finding has huge implications for global AR spread," says Graham. "A clinically important ARG originating from South Asia is clearly not 'local' to the Arctic."

How this particular gene ended up in remote Arctic soil is the source of much conjecture. The researchers hypothesize the most plausible source of the contamination is bird and wildlife feces. Human impact is also considered as a potential source however the only human settlement in the region is a tiny village of less than 120 people.

"The only way we are going to win this fight is to understand all pathways that lead to antibiotic resistance," says Clare McCann, lead author on the study. "Clearly, improved antibiotic stewardship in medicine and agriculture is crucial, but understanding how resistance transmission occurs through water and soils is also critical. We contend that improved waste management and water quality on a global scale is a key step."

The researchers note that these blaNDM-1 levels do not pose a localized heath threat but instead highlight the challenges we face in the battle against the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Alongside the obvious problem of over-administering antibiotics, the broad global spread of AR genes suggest the possibility of superbugs developing anywhere in the world, even remote islands high in the Arctic circle.

The new study was published in the journal Environmental International.