They're one of mankind’s oldest arch enemies. With a stealth that far outdoes that of the most cunning community predator, they lurk all around you, inside your home and around your children's parks and playgrounds, yet you'll seldom notice they're there. They can kill more children in a single year than sex offenders do in a millennium, and now evidence has been uncovered that they're sharing secrets in order to defeat our best defenses against them.
In a new study in the September 2, 2010 edition of Nature, researchers studying the question of antibiotic resistance discovered something that even took seasoned scientists by surprise: bacteria who prove resistant to drugs seem to sacrifice themselves in order to give their fellow bacteria a better chance at surviving the assault by antibiotics.
Working with an experimental Escherichia Coli (E-Coli) colony, they found that the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria amongst the group willingly shared their secrets with others at the expense of themselves, by producing a small molecule called an 'indole' when treated with antibiotics. This protein compound then floods through the communal broth of the colony, triggering similar mechanisms of protection in the less-resistant members.
As surprising as this finding was, equally as shocking was that bacteria do this even though it comes at a personal cost in overall health. This secret sharing ends up weakening the individual bacteria that produce it, leaving them less fit to grow and thrive, thus lessening their own chances at survival. Essentially, they're "taking one for the team," says James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and one of the study's authors. "It's not that they die, but they would do better if they didn't produce this protein." Who would guess it: Bacteria act altruistically. Perhaps calling someone scum isn't such an insult after all.
This discovery adds a new sense of urgency to worries about antibiotic overuse. Previously, scientists believed that bacteria developed resistance only through random mutation. It's natural selection at work: if you bombard bacteria with antibiotics, most will die off. But the few whose genetic makeup prove resistant are those that will survive and reproduce, passing on their resistant genes to their offspring. Over the course of many generations, the original strain is all but replaced by the resistant strain, precisely because the resistant strain were the only ones surviving to reproduce. This is how 'superbugs' are born.
That situation was bad enough, but the fact that bacteria are actually plotting against us in the here and now, sharing secrets about how to defeat our best medicines, adds a new twist to the debate on antibiotic overuse. In this study, only around 1% of the bacteria were highly resistant to the antibiotics, but they shared this resistance with others in order to help their neighbors develop the same traits.
Bacteria have been around for millennium, and so you shouldn't let this panic you or cause unnecessary anxiety. But in this back and forth tug of war between them and us, between the drugs we try to kill them with and the adaptations they implement to survive, there are a few simple things you can do to fight back:
1. Avoid using antibiotics unless you absolutely need them, and ask your doctor to do the same in prescribing them to you. One of the trends contributing to this resistance is the tendency for doctors to over prescribe antibiotics for every little thing. The more we expose potential pathogens to this weapon, the more bacteria work out defenses to defeat them.
2. When you or your child are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you use them all, even if you start to feel better. The way strains become resistant is by being hit with antibiotics without being completely wiped out. They then come back, more resistant to the drugs used to treat them.
Your immune system can take care of the remaining 1% of pathogens once antibiotics help your body knock out most of the infection to gain the upper hand. But if you stop too soon, the bacteria could come back with a vengeance, and they are likely to be more comprised of this newly resistant variety.
3. Purchase organic meat and beef. At large commercial producers, livestock are literally fed antibiotics in their feed in order to keep them healthy amongst the cramped and deplorable conditions that might otherwise make them sick. This practice has worried scientists and medical professionals for years, not just as a threat to our livestock supplies, (a resistant bacteria wipes out most of our cattle), but that this widespread and indiscriminate use of one of mankind’s best medical weapons could put humans at risk, by making bacteria in general more resistant to such medicines.
So far, there hasn't been a problem. Sorta like a year ago, there hadn't been a problem with deep-water oil drilling, and several years back there hadn't been a problem with the modern U.S. financial system. We can only hope that it doesn't become a problem.
To learn more about child safety issues visit www.keepyourchildsafe.org