Antibiotic Resistance

July 14, 2016

Scanning electron micrograph of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, brown) surrounded by cellular debris. MRSA resists treatment with many antibiotics. Photo © NIAID / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Normally, when you look at a population of animals, they all look about the same—what biologists call the “wild type.” But every now and again, a mutant shows up, which may be radically different. Among birds, a good example is the albino barn swallows that have appeared in the radioactive area around Chernobyl.

Normally, mutants are an evolutionary dead end — easily picked off by predators or ostracized from mating by the larger population of wild types. Surviving as a mutant may take additional resources, so mutants may not do well in the competitive daily arena of life.

But, mutation is also the raw material of evolution. If environmental conditions change, the characteristics of a mutant may be just what it takes to survive. Those who hope to reestablish the American chestnut in the eastern U.S., depend on the successful breeding and survival of a few mutant trees that are resistant to the chestnut blight.

Mutants that are resistant to recently altered environmental conditions are all around us — especially amongst short-lived organisms that reproduce rapidly and which have been subject to massive changes in their environment. After World War II, when huge quantities of DDT were used to quell populations of mosquitoes, a few mutants, resistant to its effects, began to take over. Now, the evolution of resistance to drugs and pesticides plagues efforts to reduce malaria in Africa. Resistant mutant weeds are also showing up in agricultural fields that are treated each year with Round-up (glyposate) herbicide.

Unfortunately too, mutants are showing up in bacterial populations in response to massive use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture. Many hospitals harbor bacteria that are resistant to the common antibiotics that are used to prevent infections, especially after surgery, among the patients who stay there. Infections by resistant bacteria are estimated to kill 23,000 Americans each year.

Down on the farm, massive doses of antibiotics—perhaps 70% of annual sales in the U.S. — are used to prevent infections when pigs and poultry are grown in crowded conditions — what we affectionately call CAFOs, for concentrated animal feeding operations. And cattle are fed antibiotics because, for poorly understood reasons, these drugs stimulate weight gain. Most of these antibiotics are the same types used to treat human disease. What we have created in agriculture is a massive theater of natural selection for drug-resistant mutant bacteria, which can infect humans.

We need some clever ideas to address this situation. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 15 bacteria that cause serious diseases are now showing resistance to antibiotics. A new government initiative, to develop new, more powerful antibiotics that bacteria have not yet experienced, simply buys time before the next generation of drug-resistant bacteria appears. So does the re-introduction of older antibiotics, retired when resistance to them developed decades ago. Interestingly, at least one group of researchers has isolated an antibiotic from nature that attacks the fundamental basis of bacterial growth, so that even resistant mutants cannot survive.

Common sense would suggest that antibiotic use should be curtailed and restricted to situations critical to human health, to minimize the conditions in which resistant bacteria arise. Humans may be master of the evolutionary process, but none of us are immune to the consequences.

This post originally appeared on William H. Schlesinger’s blog Citizen Scientist, published by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

William H. Schlesinger

William H. Schlesinger is one of the nation’s leading ecologists and earth scientists and a passionate advocate for translating science for lay audiences. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has served as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. More from William H.

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