Centre for Ecology & Hydrology PhD student Will Hutton

A researcher at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been selected to take part in the first national PhD training programme in antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Will Hutton is one of 18 PhD students from a variety of scientific fields who have been chosen for the £4m scheme, launched by the Medical Research Foundation.

The innovative, multidisciplinary research will contribute to the UK’s efforts to tackle the rapidly growing problem of AMR, which allows bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitical infections to survive antimicrobial treatment.

The overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics has led to the medicines becoming increasingly ineffective against certain bacteria, and antimicrobial resistance now poses a global threat to human health.

Additional deaths worldwide each year from AMR are expected to rise from 700,000 to 10 million if substantial action is not taken.

Mr Hutton, a molecular biologist who is based at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), is examining whether naturally occurring chemicals found in plants contribute to the observed ‘background’ level of antimicrobial resistance seen worldwide. Moreover, his research will explore the extent to which this plant-driven background AMR is clinically relevant, with direct implication to human health.

Many drug-resistance genes can be found ‘naturally’ in all corners of our world - Dr Andrew Singer

Mr Hutton says: “Our research explores the natural drivers of resistance from plants, to offer insight into what are ‘normal’ levels of AMR, and how these levels vary over space and time. This evidence base will be needed to rationalise environmental regulatory targets for AMR, as targets will need to be sensitive to how this ‘background’ AMR varies over space and as a result of different land uses.

“Our work will feed into a national risk assessment model for environmental AMR, and can also be used to inform the safe use of plant chemicals as animal and human food supplements.”

Mr Hutton’s research will be supervised by Dr Andrew Singer, an environmental microbiologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Dr Adam Roberts at LSTM, who are two of the UK’s leading experts on AMR.

Dr Singer says: “It is now widely recognised that human use and misuse of antibiotics has increased the abundance of drug-resistant bacteria in the environment, but what isn’t clear is by how much.

“Many drug-resistance genes can be found ‘naturally’ in all corners of our world, including caves, ice cores and buried sediment that is hundreds or thousands of years old. It has previously been proposed that this ‘background’ or ‘normal’ level of drug-resistance is driven by competition within and between bacteria and fungi.

“However, plants also produce antimicrobials and could potentially be an important variable in explaining this ‘background’ of drug resistance in the environment.”

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