You might not realize it, but antibiotic resistant infections could be the most important medical science issue you will face in your lifetime. You’d be forgiven for not knowing. You’ve grown up during the only time in human history where this wasn’t one of the likely ways you’d die or become ill.
Maryn McKenna has written a fantastic piece about the battle of man vs. microbe at Medium. Read it. She will take you from the 1938 death of a Rockaway Beach firefighter to early warnings by Alexander Fleming (yes, that guy) to the antibiotic-laced farms and feedlots that may constitute ground zero for today’s crisis. What begins as a tale of a life that we had no way of saving ends as a tale of, well, lives we might again have no way of saving.
I don’t mean to scare you, but I absolutely mean to tell you that this is some srs bsns that you need to deeply process, and I guess kind of scare you a bit too, now that I think about it.
To me, this isn’t really a tale about the need for new drugs or other treatments or even a lack of understanding of the inner workings of a particular class of microscopic lifeforms. It’s about a special kind of scientific hubris. Our hubris is not that of Icarus, in which the quest toward elevated knowledge and powerful technology has somehow doomed us to fall *splat* upon the Earth, scolded into a more humble existence by some mystical force in return for daring to control our own biology.
It’s not the ambition that is our problem. It’s our failure to respect the power of evolution. These hands, these minds, these chemical and physical tools that we wield, all are the product of unthinkable time and unfathomable tinkering by the forces of nature. We may never fully map out the journey that has molded us, or uncover the challenges that sparked us to rise above our cousins, or appreciate even a fraction of just how something as awesome as us could come to be.
That story is forever incomplete, but we know that evolution wrote every page. Today, as it has for billions of years, that powerful process plays out in untold numbers of single-celled species, of which every one traces its origin to long before we were a twinkle in Earth’s eye. Microbes are willing to undergo massive death and revolution for the sake of the survival of a few. We are not.
We’re a pretty mighty bunch, us humans. But if we don’t want to live in a future where every skinned knee could be a death sentence, where burn units and kidney dialysis and transplants are risks that medicine can’t afford to take, then we need to invent a solution that respects evolution, and involves it in the solution, rather than ignoring its power.
(image from Maryn McKenna’s story at Medium)
The Man Whose Microbiome Got Him Drunk
A 61-year-old man checks into the emergency room with a blood alcohol content of 0.37, almost five times the legal limit. There’s just one catch: He hadn’t had a sip of alcohol all day.
The culprit? He had a brewery inside his gut. This avid home-brewer had come down with a brewer’s yeast infection in his intestines, and any time he ate starch, they fermented it into alcohol inside his body! Yeast is used in all kinds of foods, but usually the cooking process or our stomach acids kill it before it can take up residence.
This guy’s gut microbiome was on permanent spring break. More at NPR.
Bonus: Find out much more about the 99% of you that isn’t you, your microbiome, via It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube.
A ROGUES GALLERY
of UNTREATABLE ANTIBIOTIC-RESISTANT ORGANISMS
Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]
Microorganisms with names in bold are shown in illustrations above, in the order listed.
Microorganisms with a Threat Level of Urgent
- Clostridium difficile
- Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae
- Drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae
Microorganisms with a Threat Level of Serious
- Multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter
- Drug-resistant Campylobacter
- Fluconazole-resistant Candida (a fungus)
- Extended spectrum β-lactamase producing Enterobacteriaceae (ESBLs)
- Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE)
- Multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa
- Drug-resistant non-typhoidal Salmonella
- Drug-resistant SalmonellaTyphi
- Drug-resistant Shigella
- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Drug-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Drug-resistant tuberculosis
Microorganisms with a Threat Level of Concerning
- Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA)
- Erythromycin-resistant Group A Streptococcus
- Clindamycin-resistant Group B Streptococcus
So, kids, the next time someone says to you, “You might as well take an antibiotic, it can’t hurt,” just say no!
The CDC has released a first-of-its-kind report detailing the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to our health and food supply. It is not pretty.
Within the report (you can read it here, it’s very layman-accessible) lies threat assessments for a whole range of disease-causing microbes, from famous foes like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to lesser-known dangers like Clostridium dificile and drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae (yes, that last one does exactly what you think it does).
Thousands of people are killed by such infections every year. They inflict billions of dollars of medical costs and lost wages. The drug-development pipeline for new antibiotics is almost empty. New tools like fecal transplants and phage therapy are hopeful but still experimental, and at least a decade away. So what do we do?
The CDC calls for safer use of antibiotics, both in hospitals and on farms, and increased screening and vaccination efforts. CDC director Tom Frieden put it plainly:
"If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era."
Unless we do something to reverse this trend, and fast, it’s high time to tuck your head between your knees. We’re either on a plane that’s going down, or we’re about to get paddled. The choice of metaphors is yours.
It’s important that people are educated on the grave nature of this threat, because it is very serious. Make sure your doctors are informed and are prescribing antibiotics correctly, hold your elected officials accountable for safer food and farm policies … and for the budding biologists out there, we’ve got plenty of new problems for you to solve. We’re gonna need your help.
Sir Alexander Fleming’s Lab Books. In 1921, Fleming discovered lysozyme, leading to his discovery of penicillin seven years later. The graph shows the temperature and the pulse rate of the patient Harry Lambert, before and after receiving penicillin - the first intrathecal injection in August of 1942. (via)
In addition to keeping awesome lab notebooks, Alexander Fleming painted pictures using bacteria.
Bacteriart and Fractal Forms
Eshel Ben-Jacob studies how bacterial communities communicate when faced with a challenge. What odd decisions we would face were we living in these colonies of single-celled foragers:
Larry: The food’s a little scarce over here. It’s getting crowded. Should we turn left? Or branch out forward? I’m not good with directions. Maybe we should ask the group. Or not. All I know is that I’m hungry, and I want to move away from you guys. You’re letting off gross chemicals.
Lisa: There’s some undiscovered country over there, maybe we can branch off of this branch. What’s that? I’m four branches down already? Why is that enormous scientist up there taking a picture of me? And why does he keep saying the word “fractal”?
The intricate patterns created by these microbial colonies are thought to be an emergent property of a brainless system turning simple decisions into very complex ones (which is something that bothers me about Ben-Jacob’s work, since he invokes the idea of “bacterial social intelligence”). They are not designs. they are only results. The key difference? There’s no intelligence involved. Rivers carve the same sort of fractal fingers, and they only obey the rules of gravity and friction.
The science of decisionless decision-making is a fascinating one. Ed Yong covered it marvelously earlier this year in a must-read piece for Wired. Everything from fish schools (eyes on your neighbor) to locust swarms (don’t get bit by your neighbor) to honeybee hives (head-butt your neighbor until they agree with you) create complex behaviors from simple inputs and outputs.
There’s a reason that slime molds, nerve cells and city maps look similar. Simple rules applied at large scales beget complex results.
These microbes might not be that different from the above examples, which makes sense if you stroke your chin and ponder the math behind it all. But they’re certainly more attractive, and for that, they win the day.
Thanks to io9 for the link.
The folks at io9 have some excellent/terrifying news for H.P. Lovecraft fans: Scientists have just discovered (mini) Cthulhu, in the form of two octopus like protists that live in the stomachs of wood-digesting protists. Meet Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque.
They seem to be hot on the beat of Cthulhu-ology these days, what with the discovery of this particularly Lovecraftian fossil and all.
I, for one, welcome our tentacled overlords.
New episode time! Wooooo!! Party!!
This week we take a look at one of my favorite subjects in biology. The microbiome. Throughout history, germs and microbes have been associated with the icky, the bad and the unhealthy. But it turns out we are walking ecosystems, chock full of tiny microbial mates!
Think about it: Ever not felt completely like yourself? There’s a good reason for that. Because a large part of you … isn’t you. Our bodies are home to ten times as many microbes as human cells. We are walking ecosystems, each of us home to thousands of different species on and inside of us.
Sure, some bacteria are dangerous, but without our tiny friends we wouldn’t be here. Literally. Like, they keep us alive.
This episode just scratches the surface of all the awesome microbiome science that’s out there. What do you want to know more about? Leave me a comment over at YouTube or send me a message and we can keep this microbiome party going.
Also, I am particularly proud of my t-shirt in this one.
Enjoy, share with your friends and subscribe to IOTBS on YouTube for more great science.
Insect wings can shred bacteria to pieces! This video shows how a newly discovered nanostructure on the wings of cicadas can rip certain bacterial membranes to shreds. This structure, perfected by nature as a natural defense against dangerous microbes, could be harnessed by humans to create antimicrobial surfaces.
Sometimes nature is our best innovator.
(More at Nature News)