The worsening threat of antibiotic-resistant super bugs
Since the dawn of the antibiotic era bacteria have been able to acquire resistance to these drugs. Some are better at it than others. Up until recently, though, antibiotic researchers have by and large been able to stay one jump ahead of the bugs. No longer. We are now seeing some truly frightening super-bugs — bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics. Equally disturbing is that there really aren’t any drugs in the immediate research pipeline that will help us.
There are two reasons this has happened. The first is that bacteria reproduce very, very rapidly — sometimes as rapidly as every 20 minutes or so. The result is pure evolution in action. Every time DNA, the stuff of our genes, reproduces itself there is a very small, but still real, chance that the DNA will not be replicated accurately. These random mutations are most often of no consequence. But sometimes they have major effects; they can alter the makeup of the bacterial cell by changing some aspect of it that was targeted by an antibiotic, rendering the bacteria resistant to its effects. So that antibiotic no longer works in an infection from that kind of bacteria. The offspring of such resistant bacteria are themselves resistant. Worse, in some situations resistant bacteria can pass their resistance on to other bacteria that are not even their progeny, or even the same species of bug.
The second reason for emerging resistance, as most of us should know, is the truly widespread use of antibiotics — in medicine, veterinary practice, and agriculture — when they are not needed, such as for colds. Antibiotics don’t help colds because viruses, the cause of colds, aren’t affected by them and never have been. This situation gives a selective advantage to those bacteria that are resistant over those that aren’t. It’s pure evolution.
So the scary situation we find ourselves in is party caused by biology and partly caused by us. The biology we can’t change — but we must restrict our antibiotic use to situations where they really work.