This is not a criticism of hedgehogs. We all adore them. And this news shouldn’t change our attitude towards them in any way. It’s a bit of science which tells us that a bacterium, MRSA (Staphylococcus aureus), evolved on the skin of hedgehogs about 200 years ago. This is about a century before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. It was commonly thought that MRSA evolved because of an overuse of antibiotics to become an antibiotic resistant pathogen. But that isn’t the case.
The scientists found that a skin fungus common to hedgehogs naturally produces antibiotics. And in response, bacteria on the skin of hedgehogs developed a resistance to this naturally created antibiotic. It was a natural biological process and not antibiotic used by humans which created this superbug.
Because of their resistance to antibiotics, MRSA infections are far more difficult to treat than those caused by other bacteria which is why the World Health Organisation considers them to be one of the greatest threats to human health.
The study which reports on this interesting evolution of Staphylococcus aureus is titled: Emergence of methicillin resistance predates the clinical use of antibiotics. They say that antibiotics were discovered about 80 years ago resulting in considerable improvements in human and animal health.
Resistance by human pathogens to antibiotics was thought to be a modern phenomenon because, as mentioned, of the clinical use of antibiotics to cure bacterial infections.
They say “that particular lineages of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – a notorious human pathogen – appeared in European hedgehogs in the pre-antibiotic era.”
The fungus that I refer to above is described by the scientist as “the hedgehog dermatophyte Trichophyton erinacei“. They say it produces “two β-lactam antibiotics that provide a natural selective environment in which methicillin-resistant S. aureus isolates have an advantage over susceptible isolates.”
As a consequence, they say that methicillin-resistant emerged before humankind had created and developed antibiotics.
The Times reports that about 60% of hedgehogs are estimated to carry this superbug which causes about one in 200 of all MRSA infections in people. The bacterium transferred from the European hedgehog to other animals and then to humans.
Despite this scientific news, the researchers said that the vast majority of MRSA infections which endanger the lives of people are a consequence of over-prescribing antibiotics.