In this post we will discuss antibiotic resistance and how different ‘superbugs’ are being created because of continued use of antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. This usually occurs when bacteria change in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure infections. These bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm. This resistance can cause significant danger for people who have common infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics. Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply.
Here is an interesting TED Talk by Dr. Karl Klose, which describes the ‘superbug’ and how different bacteria evolve into ‘antibiotic-resistant menaces’.
The big question is how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. There are two answers to this question. One way that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics is by mutations in DNA. These mutations occur spontaneously and can have two different effects. A change in DNA of bacteria could lead to the prevention of bacterial protein synthesis. In our previous post we discussed how antibiotics target and attack these proteins. However, if the bacteria is active without the protein, there will be nothing for the antibiotics to attack. Mutations causing variations in the shape or size of the protein prevent antibiotics from being able to properly bind to the target protein. Another change in the DNA of bacteria could lead to the overproduction of protein enzymes. This overproduction could lead to various issues. Firstly, a particular dose of antibiotics would not be able to deactivate an overproduction of protein enzymes. Furthermore, some of the proteins produced may be alter the permeability of the cell membrane of cell wall of the bacteria. Aside from spontaneously occurring mutations in the DNA of bacteria, bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics as a result of gene borrowing. According to microbiologist Doctor John Turnidge, “They’re the original life forms almost, so for thousands of millions of years they’ve had a chance to work out ways to survive and one of those is to borrow genes from other bacteria to survive.” Antibiotic resistance can result from DNA mutations or gene sharing among bacteria. The image below explains how the population of antibiotic resistant bacteria has increased tremendously. For more information regarding the process and causes of antibiotic resistance, check out this website.
Since the advent of penicillin in the 1940s, antibiotic use has been steadily increasing. Antibiotics are used far more than necessary; they are used as a precautionary measure ‘just in case’ or as a comfort to patients who have viral or fungal infections. According to the CDC, 50 million of the 150 million prescriptions for antibiotics annually are unnecessary. Doctors would rather sign off on a prescription than spend the extra time trying to educate patients on the strengths and weaknesses of antibiotics. In addition to that, increasing use of hand sanitizer and antibacterial cleaning agents also contributes to the development of superbugs. The excessive use of antibiotics has already started to have devastating effects. But why? In the body, antibiotics kill enough bacteria so that the body can finish the job. Shouldn’t more antibiotics just kill more bacteria? It would seem that we should always take antibiotics and heed the adage ‘better safe than sorry’, right? Wrong.
That type of thinking will only drive us towards the edge faster, and here’s why: As soon as researchers develop new antibiotics, there are always already bacteria with the capabilities to defeat them. These resistant bacteria survive the antibiotic agents to multiply and divide, passing on their antibiotic resistanceto their progeny. As a result, the same antibiotics become less effective with time and it becomes harder and harder to develop antibiotics for these so called ‘superbugs’. The most famous strain of bacteria that has risen due to increasing antibiotic use is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
The CDC is currently working to reduce the amount of antibiotics used, because unchecked, it could become a serious public health issue. Already, 2 million people in the US are infected annually by antibiotic resistant bacteria. Should antibiotics continue to be prescribed at such an alarming rate, we could face a post-antibiotic age, in which antibiotics have been rendered useless.