Surf cops: Investigating microbes of surfers and the sea to understand resistance

Peter Andrey Smith of the New York Times writes that on a recent trip, Cliff Kapono hit some of the more popular surf breaks in Ireland, England and Morocco. He’s proudly Native Hawaiian and no stranger to the hunt for the perfect wave. But this time he was chasing something even more unusual: microbial swabs from fellow surfers.

Mr. Kapono, a 29-year-old biochemist earning his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, heads up the Surfer Biome Project, a unique effort to determine whether routine exposure to the ocean alters the microbial communities of the body, and whether those alterations might have consequences for surfers — and for the rest of us.

Mr. Kapono has collected more than 500 samples by rubbing cotton-tipped swabs over the heads, mouths, navels and other parts of surfers’ bodies, as well as their boards. Volunteers also donate a fecal sample.

He uses mass spectrometry to create high-resolution maps of the chemical metabolites found in each sample. “We have the ability to see the molecular world, whether it’s bacteria or a fungus or the chemical molecules,” he said.

Then, working in collaboration with U.C.S.D.’s Center for Microbiome Innovation — a quick jaunt across the quad from his lab — Mr. Kapono and his colleagues sequence and map the microbes found on this unusually amphibious demographic.

He and his colleagues are looking for signs of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Part of their aim is to determine whether, and to what extent, the ocean spreads the genes for resistance.

Many antibiotics used today derive from chemicals produced by microbes to defend themselves or to attack other microorganisms. No surprise, then, that strains of competing bacteria have also evolved the genetic means to shrug off these chemicals.

While drug resistance comes about because of antibiotic overuse, the genes responsible for creating resistance are widely disseminated in nature and have been evolving in microbes for eons. Startlingly, that means genes giving rise to drug resistance can be found in places untouched by modern antibiotics.

Several years ago, researchers identified antibiotic-resistant genes in a sample of ancient permafrost from Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, was among those showing that these genes conferred a resistance to amikacin, a semi-synthetic drug that did not exist before the 1970s.

“There was a gene that encoded resistance to it in something that was alive 6,000 years ago,” he said in an interview.

Another group led by Hazel Barton, a microbiologist at the University of Akron, discovered microorganisms harboring antibiotic-resistance genes in the Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. These bacteria, called Paenibacillus sp. LC231, have been isolated from Earth’s surface for four million years, yet testing showed they were capable of fending off 26 of 40 modern antibiotics.

It’s all cool research, but all I could think of was Celebrity, a skit by The Kids in the Hall.

Hang 10, you’re booked.

  • Toban Smith

    Superb! My surfing inspiration is from local surf festival. Enjoyed my stay and loved my pizza at slice pizzeria.