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Frozen Corpses Yield Drug-Resistant Bacteria That Predate Antibiotics

October 25, 1988 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Frozen corpses of two seamen who died during a doomed Arctic expedition in 1848 contain bacteria that show unexpected resistance to antibiotics developed more than 120 years later, scientists say.

Because there is evidence that lead poisoning killed the men, the researchers speculate that heavy metal pollutants, not just overuse of antibiotics, may play a role in creating disease germs that survive drugs.

The proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has become a major problem, especially in Third World nations where the drugs are used indiscriminately, killing vulnerable bacteria and allowing resistant bacteria to reproduce.

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For example, strains of gonorrhea have become resistant to spectinomycin, penicillin and tetracycline. The use of antibiotics to keep livestock healthy also has been blamed for the spread of drug-resistant salmonella bacteria that cause human food poisoning.

But medical microbiologist Dr. Kinga Kowalewska-Grochowska said the study she conducted with colleagues at the University of Alberta in Edmonton has prompted her to speculate environmental pollution may spur development of some antibiotic-resistant germs.

She presented the study Monday during the American Society for Microbiology’s 28th Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, a meeting of 13,000 cancer, AIDS and infectious disease specialists.

The bacteria came from the bodies of William Braine and John Hartnell, two of the 129 men who died in the Canadian Arctic during Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845-1848 search for a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.

In 1986, the well-preserved bodies were among three retrieved from graves in the permafrost on Beechy Island, west of Baffin Bay in Canada’s Northwest Territories, by Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie, co-author of the 1987 book ″Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition.″

Six types of ″bacteria lying dormant for over a century were found in the bowel contents″ of Braine and Hartnell, Kowalewska-Grochowska said.

″The organisms apparently survived 140 years in permafrost. They grew sufficiently in the laboratory to be identified and tested for susceptibility to currently used antibiotics.″

She said two of the six strains of bacteria - all of which belong to the Clostridium genus, or group of species - were found to be partly resistant to the antibiotics cefoxitin, which was introduced in 1978, and clindamycin, introduced in 1970.

The surprising discovery may spur revision of the theory that the proliferation of bacteria that survive antibiotics is solely caused by widespread use and abuse of antibiotics that kill vulnerable germs, she said. Starvation, scurvy and cannibalism apparently claimed the lives of most members of the expedition, she said. The crews sailed from Britain aboard the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, then abandoned the vessels when they became trapped in ice. But high lead levels found in the three bodies on Beechy Island suggest some of them died from toxic lead that leaked into food from solder in food tins, she added.

Resistance to antibiotics may be induced by the body’s reaction to heavy metals, Kowalewska-Grochowska said, speculating that ″environmental pollution may be contributing to the development of resistance″ to antibiotics by bacteria.

″It’s totally speculative,″ said microbiologist Joseph Kornfeld, a spokesman for the American Society of Microbiology, but added the hypothesis could be tested by growing modern-day bacteria with increasing concentrations of lead and determining if they start to resist antibiotics.

Kornfeld said some chemical component or structural feature of modern antibiotics may have existed in 1848, inducing resistance in the bacteria found in Braine and Hartnell.

Kowalewska-Grochowska said tissue specimens from the corpses were kept frozen in sterile containers until bacterial tests were performed, assuring they really were 140-year-old bacteria. Some tissues also contained streptococcal bacteria, but those were identified as modern bacteria, probably from members of Beattie’s team who accidentally sneezed on the bodies, she added.

The types of Clostridium bacteria found can cause gangrene and abcesses, while related species cause botulism and tetanus, Kowalewska-Grochowska said.

Clindamycin and cefoxitin are used to treat a variety of serious infections, including of the lungs and bones.

Many have credited Franklin with discovering the Northwest Passage, but his ships only reached a point not far from waters that led to Asia, according to The World Book Encyclopedia, which says Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first trip through the passage in 1906.