The Technical University of Denmark has created a large database accessible to all, to help in the fight against micro-organisms that don’t respond to antibiotics (one of medicine's most difficult and growing challenges).
Scientists have called it Resistoma, using the 'oma' suffix very popular in scientific circles, to denote a set of entities that share similar features (for example, in the case of the 'proteoma' – proteome – all the proteins of a certain biological system).
In this case, the first part of the term helps understand what we are talking about: something that resists. Specifically, bacteria that resist antibiotics, which have been surveyed, analysed and catalogued in a large database developed by researchers at the National Food Institute of the Technical University of Denmark, as if it were a special kind of Wikipedia. This is an 'open' platform, where anyone can now add their contributions, as long as they follow the basic rules and entry systems set out and described in the scientific journal PloS Biology.
The initiative has been very successful, because it is a vital first step towards tackling what many believe will be the pandemic of the coming years (and which can already be partially seen). This is the spread of strains of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms that are resistant to some – and sometimes all –currently available antibiotics.
Up to now, however, the scientific community has always relied on isolated reports which, although much more widely shared than in the past thanks to the Internet, did not follow specific rules and were not always accessible. On the contrary, they sometimes went virtually unnoticed and were ultimately of little use in prevention.
But, as the remarkably rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (which caused Covid), the monkeypox virus and the avian flu virus (to name but a few of the most recent epidemics) has shown, pathogens can very rapidly colonise the whole world, especially when they are not stopped quickly.
Thus, the only hope of preventing an epidemic or pandemic is to develop strategies that can isolate the pathogenic micro-organism and stop its spreading. And this is even truer for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which have a further aggravating factor: features in genetic coding for resistance can spread ‘transversally’ from different species – from animals to humans and the environment.
300 terabytes of data
To launch Resistoma, the Danish researchers entered the genetic data of 214,000 microbiome samples (all populations of microorganisms present in a certain environment) from the European Nucletotide Archive in which the sequences of resistant bacteria found in various human organs, as well as in domestic animals, in the soil, underground, in sewage and in open water, etc., have been recorded over the years.
Information on the 214,000 samples takes up nearly 300 terabytes (300,000 billion bytes) of data: a considerable amount, which takes months to be completely analysed on a state-of-the-art computer.
A map of the places most at risk
An initial picture of the situation has therefore emerged, which already helps understand where resistance is widespread today, the bacteria it appears in and the features of the genetic code that support it. For example, it has been observed that resistant strains are concentrated in highly developed nations, where antibiotics have been abused for years, especially in intensive farming. So throughout the USA, almost all of Europe, and then in more limited areas of Australia, China, India and the Arabian Peninsula.
All this can help develop preventive strategies, or support proposals like banning the widespread, preventive use of antibiotics in farming, as has already occurred in Europe, but only in part in the USA.