eNews July 2020

New Mexico Tech Student Receives NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant to Study Antibiotic Resistant Pathogens in Surface Water

By Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Student Program Coordinator

Antibiotic resistance is an increasing concern around the world. The New Mexico Department of Health has determined four cases of antibiotic resistant infections with no known health-care source; the only commonality between all the patients are their counties of residence, which are connected by the Pecos River. Human activity can lead to the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) throughout natural reservoirs and surface waters. Surface waters, like the Pecos River, have become a topic of human health research due to the fact that these aquatic environments can expose resident bacteria to antibiotic resistant bacteria that could potentially transfer these determinants through horizontal gene transfer. The Pecos River is a potential source that harbors Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), an emerging group of antibiotic resistant pathogens. CREs are commonly observed in clinical settings but can be found in the environment. As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun tracking CREs. New Mexico has had a rapid increase in carbapenem-resistant infections, including pathogens carrying the VIM gene.

In June, Kasandra Velarde was awarded an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant for her project entitled, Exploring surface water as the reservoir of CRE infecting patients in SE New Mexico. Under the direction of Dr. Linda DeVeaux, the study aims to provide insight in the dissemination of carbapenem-resistance genes in the Pecos River, specifically the VIM gene, which could potentially provide a correlation between clinical and environmental reservoirs.

Water samples from the Pecos River will be taken from different sites within three counties throughout the course of summer 2020. The environmental water samples will be filtered and total DNA will be extracted. DNA will be screened for the presence of the VIM gene. If VIM positive, sequence analysis and purification will be performed and samples will go through whole genome sequencing. The analysis of mobile genetic elements and comparing the relatedness to each other and to clinical isolates from the New Mexico Department of Health will be conducted.

According to Velarde, “New Mexico has very limited data on the presence of environmental CREs that harbor antibiotic resistance genes. Four patients from neighboring counties were infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria with no identifiable point of contact. We hope to provide more information on how CRE travels between communities could contribute to the dissemination of these genes. This study can provide a link between ARGs in a clinical setting and an environmental setting, which can be used to understand how to control or predict potential outbreaks of CRE infections.”

Velarde, who has grown up in New Mexico, is a student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. She plans on graduating with a degree in Biology and moving into a graduate program in Biology focused in microbiology. After obtaining a master’s degree, Velarde’s goal is to become a researcher in the private sector or in a government position, and possibly obtaining a PhD in her field.