If you were looking for an excuse not to vacuum clean this weekend, you might want to think again.
Scientists have found that dust in your home may be the perfect breeding ground for superbugs.
Bacteria living within dust particles – made of hair, dead skin, and fabric fibres – have learned to share DNA between one another.
They deploy this trick as a last resort, when they become ‘stressed’ from living indoors, where there are very little organic matter to feed on.
Scientists from Northwestern University in Illinois spotted this ability when studying 166 indoor dust samples as part of their research.
They discovered that bacteria with drug-resistant abilities were able to share this with otherwise harmless organisms.
The bacteria do this either by dividing into two identical cells, or by making a copy of its genes and sharing them with a neighbour, which is known as horizontal gene transfer.
Dust in your home may be spreading superbugs by carrying genes which make pathogens resistant to antibiotics, researchers have found
The findings of the study showed that dust in modern homes were a ‘reservoir’ of antibiotic-resistant genes.
The team of scientists said buildings were therefore a possible place in which threatening genes could spread to humans.
It is the first study has shown that living bacteria can transfer antibiotic-resistant genes to other species.
WHAT IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE?
Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously warned if nothing is done the world is heading for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.
It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate solutions to the growing crisis.
Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics or if they are given out unnecessarily.
Former chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.
Figures estimate that superbugs will kill 10 million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.
Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.
Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the ‘dark ages’ if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.
In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.
In September, the WHO warned antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.
Without antibiotics, C-sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements will become incredibly ‘risky’, it was said at the time.
Assistant Professor Erica Hartmann, who led the study, said the discovery was ‘one more thing’ which medics need to be careful about when it came to the danger of antibiotic resistance.
Resistance is thought to have emerged following decades of GPs and hospital staff unnecessarily handing out antibiotics to patients.
As a result, it is thought superbugs could kill 10million people each year by 2050 as patients succumb to previously harmless bugs.
The World Health Organisation has previously warned that if nothing is done, the world could be heading for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.
Although it is rare for pathogens to live in indoor dust, they can hitchhike into homes and mingle with existing bacteria.
Assistant Professor Hartmann and her colleagues collected 44 dust samples in an athletics centre and 122 samples from 42 other facilities.
Within the samples, they found 183 different antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs).
These were potentially resistant against classes of antibiotics including penicillins – used to treat many different conditions including pneumonia – and macrolides, which treat issues such as sexually transmitted infections and skin problems.
In total, the researchers said 57 of these resistant genes were potentially ‘mobile’ – meaning they could transfer to other bacteria.
The most common way in which bacteria spread antibiotic resistant genes is through horizontal gene transfer, rather than through dividing.
Professor Hartmann said: ‘Microbes share genes when they get stressed out,’ she said.
‘They aren’t equipped to handle the stress, so they share genetic elements with a microbe that might be better equipped.’
Speaking of the significance of the study, she added: ‘We observed living bacteria have transferrable antibiotic resistance genes.
‘People thought this might be the case, but no one had actually shown that microbes in dust contain these transferrable genes.’
However, Assistant Professor Hartmann said that just identifying a potentially resistant set of genes or their ability to move did not indicate they would spread antibiotic resistance.
She said the observations demonstrated there can be a discrepancy between finding antibiotic resistant genes and the existence of bugs which have become resistant.
The findings were reported in the journal PLOS Pathogens.