Getting to the grassroots of mobile antimicrobial resistance

Research Lives: Prof Fiona Walsh, Human Health Institute, Maynooth University

Your research looks at antimicrobial resistance, particularly where bacteria become resistant to antibiotic drugs. How did you develop an interest in that?

I studied microbiology in Galway, and one of our lecturers, Prof Pete Smith, taught us a lot about antimicrobial resistance, or AMR. I did my undergrad final-year project on AMR in aquaculture, and it was just fascinating – it was such an open world with lots of questions.

Farming, climate change, sustainability, human health, animal health, the economy – antimicrobial resistance will be affected by or will have an impact on so many areas.

Is there a theme to your research?


Our team at the Kathleen Lonsdale Institute for Human Health Research in Maynooth looks at how antimicrobial resistance moves through environments through “movable” pieces of DNA that get into bacteria and can travel within them to different locations. We are also looking at how such pieces of DNA work within the bacteria to make them resistant to antibiotic drugs.

Why do you look at antimicrobial resistance in agriculture?

Animals and plants also get sick and need antibiotics to treat diseases, and if bacteria develop a resistance to these antibiotics, this reduces the options for us to be able to keep plants and animals healthy in agriculture. Also, one of the aspects we are interested in is whether and how antimicrobial resistance could move through the food chain.

What have you been finding in farms in Ireland?

Working with Teagasc, we looked at what happens to bacteria and antimicrobial resistance when manure is spread on grassland.

We found the standard practice of leaving the manure for a period of time before animals are allowed to graze the land reduces the levels of bacteria, so that works. Very interestingly though, we could also see that the grass had a microbial community and antimicrobial resistance DNA.

And what about the private water supplies?

We recently did a citizen science project where people around Ireland sent us samples from private water supplies, such as wells. The basic water quality was in line with regulations, but we found mobile antimicrobial resistance DNA in the water samples.

What do these findings mean?

At the moment, we don’t know if the antimicrobial resistance we are seeing in the grass or water goes on to have any effect on animal or human health. So that all needs more research.

What’s next for your research?

We are really interested in seeing what antimicrobial resistance DNA is in hospitals. Starting next year, we will work with infection control teams in hospitals to track AMR DNA at sites such as bathrooms in hospitals, and also in the infections that patients have.

What do you see as a big enabler for this area of research?

It’s really important that people can access data about AMR. All my work is funded through public agencies – the Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland, Environmental Protection Agency – so the data from these kinds of projects needs to be freely accessible, meaning that people around the world working on these questions about antimicrobial resistance can use them.

And how do you take a break from it all?

During the day it is a very simple thing – I have coffee and chat with colleagues. Outside work, I go running with the Dublin Front Runners club. It’s great to get out in the fresh air with a group and generally we don’t find ourselves talking about AMR, so it’s a chance to enjoy the world outside.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation