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E. Coli Bacteria Migrating Between Humans, Chimps

n the village had no known contact with the chimps.

The team collected 250 E. coli isolates from 25 humans and 23 chimpanzees. Of these, 89 unique genotypes (strains) of E. coli were found.

The E. coli strains from the chimps were more like those of the humans working in the park than like humans living in the village.

“This expands our notion of the situations in which people and chimps can exchange microbes,” Goldberg said. “Habitat overlap, even without direct contact between people and primates, is sufficient for the exchange to occur.”

The further finding that humans had transferred some antibiotic resistant strains to chimps “was the smoking gun,” Goldberg said. More than 81 percent of the humans and 4.4 percent of the chimps studied were found to harbor at least one E. coli isolate that was clinically resistant to an antibiotic. Antibiotics are used frequently in human populations in this region of Uganda, Goldberg said, but antibiotics have never been used in local wildlife, so the antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chimps clearly originated in humans.

Goldberg said it was not clear whether the exchange of bacteria was the result of direct or indirect (environmental) association between the chimps and humans working in the park. Both make use of local streams and other environmental features.

Regardless of the route of transmission, it places both at risk, Goldberg said.

“We’re as concerned about potential effects on human health as on animal health,” he said.

He noted that the exchange of microbes between non-human primates and humans is not new. Two deadly viruses, HIV and Ebola, are believed to be linked to chimpanzees and other non-human primates. Human diseases also pass to monkeys and apes, with equally dire consequences: Pneumonia, respiratory disease, scabies and a polio-like virus have caused epidemic mortality in chimpanzees in some African locales.
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