Student Research Finds Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Nearby Wetlands

Student researchers at Loyola Marymount University have located strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Ballona Wetlands just north of the Westchester campus—a discovery that poses troubling concerns for both public health and the well-being of the surrounding environment.

While most people know that it’s bad for public health when bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, there’s less widespread understanding of how the phenomenon can affect the rest of our  environment, said Stephanie Kawecki, a second-year graduate student in environmental science in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering.

“Ecological systems run on checks and balances,” Kawecki said. “If bacteria are surviving in the presence of antibiotics, their relative abundance may increase. This leads to impacts on the environment.”

The implications of the discovery aren’t fully known yet, and students are continuing research on microbes in the area, including identifying the specific bacteria in question and the genes responsible for their resistance to antibiotics. The research is a joint project led by biology Prof. Gary Kuleck and civil engineering and environmental science Prof. John Dorsey. It is funded in part by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

The research uncovered no obvious source for some of the bacteria that students found in the wetlands, though Kawecki noted that improper sewage disposal could have brought antibiotics and resistant bacteria into Ballona through urban runoff.

Future research will look into whether development of the area around the wetlands could become a public health threat, and if the wetland area is serving as a reservoir for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Already, Kuleck said, student researchers found differences in bacteria population at flood and ebb tides, possibly indicating some bacteria remain in the sediment.

“Microbial ecology can’t be ignored; bacteria can both benefit and harm humans,” Kuleck said. “It is vital that we study microbial ecology in coastal wetlands like Ballona for ourselves and the generations to come, as efforts are being made to restore the Ballona Wetlands to a fully functional, non-impaired status.”