This is very cool, very novel, very impressive, and fairly frightening.
Over the past couple of decades, the medical community has become increasingly aware of a very serious problem: antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Due largely to the over-prescribing of pharmaceutical antibiotics, bacteria have evolved to tolerate many common drugs; the survival instinct is no less compelling in bacteria than in any other living thing. These bacteria have been labeled “superbugs” because of their ability to quickly adapt.
Resistance is a problem for human health because once-powerful medicines that kill infections are no longer effective. Therefore, a simple sickness can now become life-threatening. More powerful antibiotics have been developed to combat infection but they are often fraught with side effects. Plus, bacteria seem to adapt almost as fast as the new drugs that fight them.
In a novel experiment by researchers from several prestigious institutions, a MEGA (microbial evolution and growth arena) petri dish was constructed to watch bacteria in action. As its name suggests, this petri dish was 60 X 120 centimeters or 2 X 4 feet (1). In comparison, the standards size for dishes is typically 90mm in diameter (2).
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Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria in Action
Divided like a football field, scientists graded the MEGA plate and lined it with agar (food for the bacteria). They then added various concentrations of antibiotics from none at the outer ends and increasing exponentially toward the center. E.coli bacteria were placed in the end zones.
Watch the short video below to see what happened—it’s fascinating and beautiful in its own way.
With no drugs to kill them, bacteria flourished and grew when first added to the MEGA plate. Just enough antibiotic was placed in the next band to kill the bacteria. Most died, but those that survived managed to reproduce.
Many went on to the next level of drugs at 10 times the dosage normally needed to kill them. Time lapse photography filmed the bacteria’s adaptation and literal evolution over the course of 2 weeks.
The end result: the fastest bacteria (not necessarily the strongest) were able to adapt quickly to the antibiotics. While they may not be strong enough to survive very long, if they happen to find the perfect human host, these bacteria could thrive and cause devastating health problems.
The “winners” from each end made it to mid-field at 1000 times the dose necessary to initially kill them. These are classified as super bugs.
The primary author of the study explains:
“We know quite a bit about the internal defense mechanisms bacteria use to evade antibiotics but we don’t really know much about their physical movements across space as they adapt to survive in different environments.” (3)
We now have a greater insight into how quickly and effectively bacteria can evolve, though not exactly how they behave in a real-world situation. Because their natural lifespans are short, the “children” of the bacteria who survived one dosage level of antibiotic passed on their tolerance to the next generation and so on.
It took more time for initial mutations, but growth rates increased as the generations became more resistant before moving through the field to the antibiotic.
Life Imitates Art
This novel research was inspired by an advertisement for the film “Contagion” in which was shown a giant laboratory dish with microorganisms crawling on a black background. The senior study investigator saw the ad and it sparked his imagination. Turned out that life sometimes imitates art:
“Our MEGA-plate takes complex, often obscure, concepts in evolution, such as mutation selection, lineages, parallel evolution and clonal interference, and provides a visual seeing-is-believing demonstration of these otherwise vague ideas.” (Ibid.)
The size of the petri dish is significant, giving bacteria room to expand and allowing a longer evolutionary period for scientists to observe.
This type of creative study is becoming increasingly more important as antibiotic resistance is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 2,000,000 Americans become infected with resistant bacteria each year. Of those, over 23,000 die as a direct result and still more die of indirect complications (4).
There are infinitely more bacteria on the planet than humans. Many are not only beneficial but necessary for human survival. When we attempt to kill them (i.e., take antibiotics) when it’s unwarranted, we force them to find other ways to survive. Viruses and fungal infections don’t respond to antibiotics, yet these are often prescribed for treatment.
“Getting more people to understand how quickly bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance might help people understand why they shouldn’t be prescribed antibiotics. The drug resistance is not some abstract threat. It’s real.” says Tami Lieberman, an evolutionary microbiologist at MIT, who conducted the study .
How Antibiotic Resistance Affects You
Most people think that antibiotic resistance means that antibiotics no longer work for you as an individual, but it’s much scarier than that. As this article explains, antibiotic resistance refers to antibiotic resistant bacteria, meaning that the bacteria themselves don’t react to antibiotics. Try as you may to avoid antibiotics, all it takes is a few people abusing them to spark a worldwide health crisis.
And antibiotic resistant isn’t just present in the medical field. In fact, it’s even an issue when it comes to how our food is raised and prepared.
If an animal was treated with antibiotics and you eat it, you get the residue inherent in the meat. As in humans, antibiotics kill good bacteria as well as harmful ones, opening the door to further illness and disease.
Over 15 years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a report on antibiotic resistance in livestock and the growing concern. Human, as well as veterinary, antibiotics are allowed for use in animals raised for human consumption. This is still the case in most of the meat, dairy products, and other animal products we eat today.
Plus, soap and cleaning supplies used in meat factories, grocery stores, and restaurants contribute towards superbugs. Like with antibiotics, the bacteria gets accustomed to these products and develops resistance.
A strong immune system goes a long way toward preventing infection and avoiding the need for antibiotics. Many natural plant antibiotics can be found almost anywhere in abundance. For example, honey and apple cider vinegar know which bacteria are harmful to your body and support the proliferation of the good ones. So when you do get sick, rely on a natural antibiotic instead.