A gene called MCR-1 has recently been found that can be passed from one bacteria to another, even if those bacteria are unrelated. The scary part? The gene gives any bacteria that possesses it resistance to even the strongest antibiotics, and the gene is already spreading rapidly worldwide. It may only be a matter of time before universal drug resistance is widespread, essentially making antibiotics as we know them obsolete, reports The Guardian.

“These are extremely worrying results,” said Professor Jian-Hua Liu from South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, author of the report. “Our results reveal the emergence of the first polymyxin resistance gene that is readily passed between common bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, suggesting that the progression from extensive drug resistance to pandrug resistance is inevitable.”

Polymyxins are among the strongest antibiotics ever discovered, and are widely considered the last fully functional class of antibiotics. That's what makes this gene so scary. Not only does it nullify our last defense against bacterial infections, but it can be spread between bacteria so easily. Usually genes that provide antibiotic-resistance develop as mutations in individual organisms, and spread via natural selection through the bacterial population. MCR-1, however, can be passed from one bacteria to another without having to go through this process. It's like a supergene that instantly turns regular bugs into superbugs.

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Experts discovered the gene by chance during routine testing of animals destined for the food market. Further tests revealed that the gene was already found in 166 out of 804 animals tested and in 78 of 523 raw meat samples. Even more ominous, it was also found in 16 bacterial samples taken from 1,322 human patients. In other words, it may already be too late to control its spread, and it has already spread from our food to us.

The gene likely emerged in China, in agricultural animals that were being heavily treated with antibiotics.

“This will require substantial political will and we call upon Chinese leaders to act rapidly and decisively. Failure to do so will create a public health problem of major dimensions,” wrote David Paterson and Patrick Harris from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Professor Nigel Brown, president of the Microbiology Society, added: “Now that it has been demonstrated that resistance can be transferred between bacteria and across bacterial species, another line of defense against infection is in danger of being breached. We need careful surveillance to track the potential global spread of this resistance, and investment in research to discover new drugs with different modes of action.”

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Gene for antibiotic-resistance discovered that bacteria can give to one another
The gene, which could spell the end to antibiotics for good, may soon spread worldwide.