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Ohio Wesleyan University Student Research Suggests Birds May Spread Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

May 21, 2009

DELAWARE, OH – New research conducted at Ohio Wesleyan University suggests that wild songbirds may help to spread methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a difficult-to-treat and potentially fatal bacteria sometimes associated with hospital-acquired infections.

The research was conducted by Max R. Schroeder, a 2009 Ohio Wesleyan graduate, with funding from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the National Science Foundation, and Ohio Wesleyan.

“With the recent increase in the number of cases of MRSA that have no connection to hospitals, it is necessary to study how these pathogens are spread,” said Schroeder, a Cleveland resident who earned his bachelor’s degree in May with a major in microbiology and a minor in chemistry. “With the identification of birds as one possible vector for dispersal of these increasingly common bacteria, we may begin to understand the risks.”

Once these risks are identified, Schroeder said, steps can be taken to minimize exposure to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For example, he said, if researchers know that birds shed MRSA onto park benches or playground equipment, people can be advised to wash after contacting such equipment, to bandage wounds, and not to touch such equipment if they have cuts, scrapes, or open sores.

“The next step in this research,” Schroeder said, “would be to survey more birds to see if this pattern holds up when hundreds of birds or different species are sampled.” In addition, researchers need to verify the specific conditions under which MRSA carried by birds may be transmitted to humans, said Schroeder, a 2008-09 ASM undergraduate research fellow.

For the study, Schroeder caught 128 wild songbirds in mist nets in Central Ohio between April and June 2008. Samples of contaminants carried on their feathers were collected, grown in laboratory cultures, and then tested for methicillin resistance. The birds were banded and released back into the wild.

Schroeder presented his findings May 19 at the 2009 ASM annual meeting in Philadelphia. His research was conducted in collaboration with Ohio Wesleyan zoology professor Edward H. Burtt Jr., Ph.D., and scanning electron microscope technician Laura Tuhela-Reuning, Ph.D. Schroeder hopes to continue his research as a graduate student and plans to pursue a doctorate in either environmental or medical microbiology.

The American Society for Microbiology, founded in 1899, is the oldest and largest single life science membership organization in the world. The ASM strives to advance microbiological sciences through the pursuit of scientific knowledge and dissemination of the results of fundamental and applied research.

Ohio Wesleyan University is an undergraduate liberal arts college that transforms the lives of its students through a combination of rigorous academics, mentoring relationships, and real-world experiences. Featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives,” the private university’s 1,850 students come from 47 states and 50 countries. Visit www.owu.edu for more information.