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Understanding drivers of antibiotic resistance genes in High Arctic soil ecosystems

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Clare McCannORCiD, Dr Beate Christgen, Emeritus Professor Neil Gray, Professor David GrahamORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND).


Soils in tropical and temperate locations are known to be a sink for the genetic potential of anthropogenic-driven acquired antibiotic resistance (AR). In contrast, accumulation of acquired AR is less probable in most Polar soils, providing a platform for characterizing background resistance and establishing a benchmark for assessing AR spread. Here, high-throughput qPCR and geochemistry were used to quantify the abundance and diversity of both antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and selected mobile genetic elements (MGEs) across eight soil clusters in the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard in the High Arctic. Relative ARG levels ranged by over two orders of magnitude (10−6 to 10−4 copies/16S rRNA gene copy), and showed a gradient of potential human and wildlife impacts across clusters as evidenced by altered geochemical conditions and increased “foreign” ARG abundances (i.e., allochthonous), including blaNDM-1. Impacted clusters exhibited 100× higher total ARGs and MGEs in tandem with elevated secondary nutrients, especially available P that is typically low and limiting in Arctic soils.In contrast, ARGs in less-impacted clusters correlated strongly to local soil lithology. The most plausible source of exogenous P and allochthonous ARGs in this region is bird and other wildlife guano, disseminated either by local human wastes or via direct carriage and deposition. Regardless of pathway, accumulation of apparent allochthonous ARGs and MGEs in High Arctic soils is concerning, highlighting the importance of characterizing Arctic sites now to establish benchmarks for tracking AR spread around the world.

Publication metadata

Author(s): McCann CM, Christgen B, Roberts JA, Su J, Arnold KE, Gray ND, Zhu Y, Graham DW

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Environment International

Year: 2019

Volume: 125

Pages: 497-504

Print publication date: 01/04/2019

Online publication date: 28/01/2019

Acceptance date: 12/01/2019

Date deposited: 28/01/2019

ISSN (print): 0160-4120

ISSN (electronic): 1873-6750

Publisher: Pergamon Press


DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2019.01.034


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Funder referenceFunder name
K.C Wong Education Foundation
NE/J01446X/1Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
NE/N020626/1Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)