Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What causes antibiotic resistance?

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Super bugs!



We've all benefited from modern medicine one way or another, and it is not going away.

However, much of it is based on the power of antibiotics, perhaps the most important scientific finding of the 20th Century. Antibiotics have saved more lives than just about anything else ever discovered by scientists.

And it was all due to an accidental discovery in mold. You see, we have friends in the microscopic world who don't like bacteria attacking them, either, and over billions of years they figured out ways to keep the bad bacteria at bay which we stole for our own use.

Increasingly, though, antibiotics are losing their usefulness. No, not all at once, and only in peculiar situations. It is through over-use. In the natural environment, antibiotics are fairly rare and isolated. With people, we are using them all the time, in myriad situations, and they work.

However, the little buggers don't want to be killed off that easily. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in order to survive - adapting and morphing to avoid their enemies. In this case, they are effectively evading our attempts to kill them - kind of like terrorists. It's the whole Darwinian thing.

E. coli and salmonella are considered to be super bacteria these days. Staphylococcus aureus is another one. It is a Gram-positive coccal bacterium that is a member of the Firmicutes, and is frequently found in the human respiratory tract and on the skin. It causes food poisoning, respiratory disease and skin infections.

I bet you weren't expecting to see staphylococcus aureus mentioned here.

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The point is, the little critters are clever. Even if only .00000001% of bacteria that we target figure out a way to evade our medicine, eventually they will breed and be the ones that take over and replace the others as they die off - rendering our antibiotics, that previously seemed undefeatable, useless.

So, it's a real problem.

But then, some would say that humans are the virus, and we are the ones disturbing the bliss of bacteria that are simply going about their normal course of business by trying to rid the world of our harmful presence. That, of course, is looking at the world from the viewpoint of bacteria.

However, most people look at the world from the viewpoint of, well, people, and would just as soon get rid of the dangerous bacteria rather than let them have their way and sterilize us out of existence.

It is not that bacteria are bad. Bacteria are actually the only things keeping us alive. We couldn't, for instance, digest food without them. So, we don't want to kill all bacteria. Just the evil ones.

This TED-Ed animation shows the problems scientists are facing with this unexpected development. It's a bit science-y, but it's fun to stretch your mind now and then.

Surprisingly, the problem may have a simple solution - using antibiotics less. This will slow the opportunities the diseases have to figure out ways around our weapons. But there is no magic bullet yet.

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From the youtube page:
There are a few strains of 'super bacteria' that are pretty nasty -- and they're growing resistant to our antibiotics. Why is this happening? Kevin Wu details the evolution of this problem that presents a big challenge for the future of medicine.
Right now, you are inhabited by trillions of microorganisms. Many of these bacteria are harmless (or even helpful!), but there are a few strains of ‘super bacteria’ that are pretty nasty -- and they’re growing resistant to our antibiotics. Why is this happening? Kevin Wu details the evolution of this problem that presents a big challenge for the future of medicine. 
Lesson by Kevin Wu, animation by Brett Underhill.



2014

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