Problematic Gut Microbes Hitch a Ride With Travelers

June 11, 2021 — Travelers returning home from foreign destinations are bringing back more than tourist souvenirs and memories. Their guts may be harboring new microbial hitchhikers, some of which bear gene sequences that make antibiotics less effective.

These new findings, published online June 7 in Genome Medicine, stand out because the researchers captured the fecal microbiome profile of the travelers before they departed and immediately upon their return. The before-and-after comparison is “the most novel part here,” Jonathan Eisen, PhD, professor and microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, Medscape Medical News. Eisen was not involved in the study. “They’re getting a snapshot in time of where pools of antimicrobial resistance organisms or genes are.”

For this work, researchers profiled stool samples from 190 people traveling from their home bases in the Netherlands to areas in Northern and Eastern Africa and Southern and Southeastern Asia. The time that the visitors spent at their destination was at least a week but no more than 3 months, and they had not taken any antibiotics within the 3 months before their trips.

Immediately upon their return from their journeys, which were mostly taken for leisure, the same individuals provided an additional stool sample. Analyses of those samples showed many new microbiota arrivals along with their traveling human hosts, including 56 gene sequences associated with antibiotic resistance.

People can pick up new microbes in their gut in several ways, including by eating and drinking and using restroom facilities in the places they visit. Anyone who travels is considered a “sink” for acquiring new microbial companions, and a new place they visit is a “source” of them. In this study, the Dutch travelers were “sinks.”

Those who visited the same destinations tended to pick up similar new microbes, suggesting specificity of these bacteria and their genes to geographic sources. The investigators tested the ability of some of the hitchhiking gene sequences to confer antibiotic resistance against E.coli bacteria and found that they did.

The study did not examine whether these acquired microbes are associated with the risk of developing human disease said study author Gautam Dantas, PhD, a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. He and his colleagues also did not evaluate what happens to the new gut residents after travelers settle in back at home. “We do not know how transient the acquisition is,” Dantassaid.”Who knows, maybe one week later, half of these things are gone, maybe a year later all of them are gone…we don’t have that answer yet.”

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