U professor finds way to fight against “superbug”

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a serious issue across the country.
November 24, 2010

One of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century is quickly becoming obsolete. Antibiotics, which are among the most prescribed medications, are losing their value due to drug-resistant bacteria, often collectively called the “superbug.”

University of Minnesota environmental engineer and microbiologist Timothy LaPara  has discovered that treating solid waste at high temperatures may help fight the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

LaPara’s research showed heating the solid waste to 130 degrees Fahrenheit was effective in eliminating the genes that result in drug-resistant bacteria.

The bacteria, which reside in the digestive tract of all humans, can live in wastewater solids. Water treatment plants clean the wastewater so it can be used in the everyday household.

Current water treatment facilities use digesters which heat the solid waste up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit, approximately the same temperature as the human body, allowing the bacteria to live in the waste.

This new method of treating the water would only be an improvement of the current method, said Pat Schlievert, professor of microbiology at the University.

“The current scientific paradigm is to look at this from the health care perspective,” said College of Science and Engineering  spokeswoman Rhonda Zurn. “This is looking at it from a different perspective of how these super bacteria are formed and might be proliferating in our wastewater treatment plants.”

Superbugs are becoming a serious issue in health care facilities across the country. The infections they cause, which can be passed by human-to-human contact, often infect victims in hospitals and can be fatal in as many as 30 percent of cases.

Overprescribing antibiotics is a serious issue and contributes to the resistance of the superbug, LaPara said. Doctors have been trying to limit the number of prescriptions they write for antibiotics in response to the superbug problem.

The Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund  contributed approximately $300,000 to the research.

LaPara recently received a National Science Foundation grant close to $400,000 to continue his research with sewage waste for the next three years.

“Microbes are pretty nasty enemies, and they have figured out how to develop antibiotic resistance and will continue to do that,” Schlievert said. “It will continue to be a battle between physicians and microbes in patients that they treat.”

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