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Gene that can make bacteria resistant to critical antibiotic found in Georgia water

The University of Georgia said that scientists found the MCR-9 gene in the state's sewer water.

ATLANTA — A gene that can make bacteria resistant to one of the world's most important antibiotics has been found in Georgia water, the University of Georgia said.

Researchers at UGA's Center for Food Safety reported finding the MCR-9 gene in sewer water in an "urban setting" in Georgia.

The gene was first discovered back in 2015 by scientists at Cornell University, and has been described as a "stealthy jumping gene so diabolical and robust that it resists one of the world’s few last-resort antibiotics."

That antibiotic is colistin, an antibiotic considered a kind of backbone "last-resort" antibiotic used to treat infections when all other antibiotics have failed.

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Several countries, including Sweden, China and France, have previously reported finding MCR-9. 

According to a release, UGA researcher Issmat Kassem, an assistant professor with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and his team were "surprised at how quickly they detected MCR," finding evidence of the gene in the first sample they examined.

The discovery of MCR-9 in Georgia water "demonstrates that the gene is becoming established in the U.S.," UGA said in the release.

Kassem was additionally concerned because the gene was found in a bacteria, Morganella morganii, not often tested in MCR-9 research - meaning the gene could potentially have wider spread than currently thought. Because of the way the gene spreads, UGA said, it could wind up in bacteria like E. coli or Salomnella, which frequently cause outbreaks in humans, with MCR-9 "turning them from treatable illnesses to potentially deadly infections."

Kassem, the UGA researcher, said a coordinated response from fields such as science, healthcare and government is needed to address the risk MCR-9 poses.

“If we don’t tackle it right now, we are jeopardizing human and animal medicine as we know it and that can have huge repercussions on health and the economy,” Kassem said. “It’s a dangerous problem that requires attention from multiple sectors for us to be able to tackle it properly.”

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