The incredible ability of cross-resistant and cross- tolerance in bacteria

Chemical detergents can cause antibiotic resistant – but how are they linked?

Antibiotics – one of worlds wonder discoveries is being challenged by the misuse of antimicrobials. Recent research has shown that bacterial resistant against antibiotics is also mediated through the same pathways of defence mechanism used to withstand or tolerate commonly used detergents and antimicrobial substances. This has raised serious concerns since excessive use of chemicals may be a different thread to our future health and society.

Antimicrobial resistent bacteria petri plates

The story of antibiotic discovery

The accidental discovery of world’s first antibiotics revolutionizes all medicine

Antibiotics are considered as one of worlds wonder discoveries. After its discovery by Alexander Fleming, a new era of modern medicine was initiated with the possibility of performing complex surgeries such as organ transplantation, chemotherapy and caesarean sections. Alexander Flemming discovered penicillium by an accident, after leaving petri dishes with heavy bacterial growth in his laboratory. When he returned to his laboratory after a long vacation, he discovered that one of the petri dishes had a mould contamination and around that mould, a clear zone with no bacterial growth was discovered. The mould, which was recognized as penicillium, was producing a natural compound to fight of bacteria. It was the natural survival defence mechanisms between these two species that started new possibilities of treating simple infections for humans with the use of antibiotics.

Fiddling with nature has its costs and consequence

For many years, scientist have known about the incredible survival interactions between different species. Alexander Fleming also made many speeches about the outcome of these interactions which can both benefit and harm us at the same time. He warned about the use and misuse of the substances involved and the rise of new dangerous species of microorganisms. Today, we experience occasional causes with devastating outcomes of antibiotic resistant pathogens mostly discovered at health care sectors, but this is merely a surface wound. According to WHO, antibiotic resistance has become one of the biggest thread to global health, food security and development today. They further warn that without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.

The drawbacks of necessary food safety procedure

Food safety standards are important to keep our food safe, from animal breeding through slaughter and final serving. The traditional practice of food safety procedures has been highly challenged to keep up with the increasing demands in food supply. Chemical detergents have been an important agent against microbes all through the supply chain, however, the negative long-term effects have received very little attention. Whether they are authorized to be used directly on food products or on food contact surfaces, the effect from such chemical detergents or antimicrobials are far more serious than anticipated.

Scientist are expressing concern regarding the use and misuse of antimicrobials which can potentially lead to highly skilled evolved bacteria that can tolerate high amounts of chemical detergents as well as becoming resistant to antibiotics all in one single cellular system. Microorganism including pathogens can mediate such unique skills through several types of survival mechanism and they can pass on these information to others as well.

The most conspicuous examples of determinants conferring cross-resistance to different antibiotics are multidrug resistance (MDR) efflux pumps. These transporters are present in all organisms, including pathogens. The efflux pump can actively extrude a variety of compounds including antimicrobials, antibiotics, detergents and a large variety of non-antimicrobial substances.


Illustration of the defense mechanisms in bacteria. Bacteria has many types of active mechanisms including the efflux pump which serves as a transportation system which actively excludes antimicrobials.  Enzymes are expressed as a reaction to high levels of antimicrobials in the cell and protects the cell by degrading antimicrobials. Other membrane Porin protein are not expressed as a result of high levels of antimicrobials outside the cell. Genetic genes expressing such resistance mechanism are passed on and shared with other bacteria through plasmids.

Alternative thinking all through the supply chain

Action plans on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) launched by FAO, WHO and the EU are enabling and motivating countries to work together towards sustainable long-term solutions for reducing the need for antimicrobials. Resistant can spread through countries and species and therefore a need for a global engagement is necessary.

The FAO-WHO global action plan consists of 4 pillars of focus areas:

  • Awareness: Improve awareness of AMR issues among farmers and producers, veterinary professionals and authorities, policymakers, and food consumers.
  • Evidence: Develop national capacities for surveillance and monitoring of AMR and antimicrobial use (AMU) in food and agriculture.
  • Governance: Strengthen governance related to AMU and AMR in food and agriculture.
  • Practices: Promote good practices in food and agricultural systems and the prudent use of antimicrobials.

The aim of the global action plan is to involve public health and veterinary authorities, the food and agriculture sectors, financial planners, environmental specialists and consumers to efficiently combat AMR.