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Inside the Line of Fire Against Superbugs

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

[Image Source: BBC Science Focus Magazine]

At first sight, it may seem as though we live by our own biological processes; however, bacteria live all around us. As outrageous as it may seem, they are actually living inside you right now. But fear not―they are here to help (most of them, that is).

Bacteria are a series of unicellular living organisms and members of the domain Prokarya. These small and imperceptible units of life are actually helping you as we speak, so that you can break down the molecules of the burger you had for lunch in your mouth with saliva, then later allow you to digest the same burger in your gut. Importantly, bacteria can protect your skin from unwanted viruses or other living organisms, and even create oxygen or other essential components for life. Yet, where do these bacteria come from?

From the frigid depths of the Arctic to inside of an incredibly hot volcano, bacteria can live and adapt nearly everywhere. After all, they were one of the first living organisms on earth, so they know the show.

When Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928, no one knew that his discovery would shift the medical and biological fields forever. Fleming, an important biologist and pharmacologist, had been experimenting with a bacteria known as streptococcus; as he returned after leaving his petri dishes behind to go on a vacation, he encountered a very strange phenomenon. Fleming observed that fungi had grown in his petri dishes, and that the streptococcus did not grow near the fungi identified as penicillium. That's how the new era of antibiotics, or agents that kill bacteria, began.

Time went by, but it was not until 1941 that Fleming's discovery was put into use. Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman, had been savagely attacked by a rose with spikes in his garden. He had suffered from a bacterial infection from the cut, leaving penicillin to be his only chance of survival. That's when Howard Florey, a doctor from Oxford, decided it was time to put this new medicine to the test. He and his colleagues were able to synthesize penicillin from the fungi penicillium and administer it to Alexander, who, at this point, was on the verge of death. After a few days reusing penicillin from his urine, they ended up having no more antibiotics, leaving Albert Alexander to die as a hero in the world of science. With that discovery, doctors proved that penicillin worked against a wide range of bacteria; and in 1945, Fleming, Florey, and their colleague, Boris Chain, were awarded with the Nobel Prize in medicine.

More than 70 years later, we are now facing a dead end against bacteria. Outbreaks of different superbugs* for several reasons have been raising numbers in the past few years. Why is this?

The short answer would be evolution; but in reality, giving an answer like that would just wash our hands clean from the problem. And the truth is that we, humans, have a lot on our plate when it comes to antibiotic resistance.

At first, evolution has had an important part in antibiotic resistance. The incredibly rapid speed that bacteria can create new generations** has been a great part of mutations that benefit it in the fight against antibiotics. Bacteria can destroy them, inhibit them, and burp them out of their system, among others.

Next, irresponsible use of antibiotics has had a major impact on the speed at which bacteria evolve and get antibiotic resistance. As Alexander Fleming predicted in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1945, “The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.” But, how does antibiotic resistance work? With transduction, bacteria are able to insert a portion of their DNA or plasmids into a vector such as a virus and transmit that portion to other bacteria to adopt their DNA. With transformation, bacteria are able to pick up “DNA packages” from the medium and adopt them as resources to survive. These packages can be used by most bacteria regardless of their species. At last, with conjugation, bacteria are able to transfer their genes by connecting with their pilus and transferring plasmids to other bacteria.

Knowing these ways of transferring resistance, we can now look at the irresponsible conducts involving humans. Sharing or not, finishing antibiotics when prescribed might kill defenseless bacteria but leave the most powerful colonies inside you, allowing them to grow and spread. Asking or forcing doctors to prescribe antibiotics when not needed, such as through viral diseases, are a way in which bacteria can begin to get a hold of the antibiotics we are using in the industry and learn how to fight against them. The extensive use of antibiotics in the farming and food industry (at least 80% of worldwide use) has had a devastating effect on the resistance, since these superbugs can pass on to humans from animal meat. From that, we derive other irresponsible conducts such as eating raw meat, buying from irresponsible producers, etc. It is estimated that, if we don’t stop this by 2050, people will reach a dead end that will turn them back to XIIth century medicine, without the use of medicine or antibiotics.

However, this is far from being over―the poor funding received by pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics has not established a great incentive to continue production, since they cannot keep up with the developing resistance.

Nonetheless, there's still hope for humanity and medicine as we know it. Scientists have been working in different ways of fighting off bacteria in the lines of defense by using phages (viruses that infect bacteria) and different techniques that cannot be deciphered by bacteria (at least in the near future). This is why everyone should develop more responsible consumption and informative conduct in order to keep everybody safe and let biologists take this shot against the enemy. Remember, we’re at war―however, we are clearly outnumbered.


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