In the tradition of horror films from the 1950s, The Superbug takes the screen. Unfortunately, unlike The Blob, The Mummy, and The Thing, The Superbug is not fiction and its doomsday potential is real.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School recently made a shocking time-lapse video showing how, as bacteria becomes antibiotic resistant, it gains strength and evolves into superbugs that can’t be stopped.
For most people, evolution is just conceptual, says Tami Lieberman, an evolutionary microbiologist at MIT. She and her Ph.D. adviser, Roy Kishony at Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, wanted something that would make the evolution of superbugs seem more concrete. “The goal was to see evolution, not to abstract it,” she says.
For the experiment, a giant petri dish was built measuring 4- by 2-foot and divided into nine bands. Varying amounts of antibiotics were loaded into each band, with the potency increasing toward the center of the dish. E. coli bacteria was then placed in the outside bands and allowed to grow toward the center, across bands of increasingly stronger doses of antibiotic.
The video shows the bacteria having difficulty at first, with some of it dying off, but then mutating with each stronger level of antibiotics as it continues an evolutionary march to the center. After about 11 days, the bacteria mutants reach the center where antibiotics are 1,000 times normal potency. And yet, the mutated bacteria survives.
What the researchers didn’t expect: The faster growing colonies of resistant bacteria were cutting off the growth of slower but more drug-resistant colonies and becoming more successful.
“This illustrates that bacteria, which is normally sensitive to an antibiotic, can evolve resistance to extremely high concentrations in a short period of time,” says researcher Michael Baym, who built the kitchen table-sized petri dish.
When a bacteria’s drug resistance evolves, it usually comes at some kind of cost to the bug. In the presence of an antibiotic, faster growing colonies don’t grow as robustly as the slower ones — but that often doesn’t matter. If the strain wants to live on, it just needs to be the first to get to the next human or food source. “[This] phenomenon has been very, very tough to study classically,” says Baym.
Antibiotic Resistance High And Fatal
This is not good news for humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year, nearly two million people in the United States acquire an infection while in a hospital, resulting in 90,000 deaths. More than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause these superbug infections are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics commonly used to treat them.
Just this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) “is an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.” And in the same report, “Globally, 480,000 people develop multidrug resistant tuberculosis each year, and drug resistance is starting to complicate the fight against HIV and malaria, as well.”
And, as illustrated in the superbug experiment, antibiotic potency is making little difference. In 2016, a virulent strain of E. coli, resistant to colistin, reached the United States. Colistin was supposed to be an antibiotic of last resort until it was abused in the meat industry.
Superbugs…Where’s The Hope?
A new study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) calls for a broader approach to address bacterial infection. A more preventative holistic approach is recommended along with probiotics.
Another natural alternative gaining popularity is high-quality colloidal silver, which has been proven in modern lab conditions to wipe out over 630 exotic and common pathogens while improving overall resistance against an incredible spectrum of human ailments.
Meanwhile, researchers hope that the video and report (published in the journal Science), will draw attention to the enormity of AMR.
And if scientists can see it, maybe they can start to study it. The use of something as simple as a giant petri dish could help scientists open up the spatial dimension that has been missing from the lab, says Pamela Yeh, a microbiologist at UCLA who was not involved in the experiment. “Hopefully this will put back in people’s minds how important the spatial element can be.”
“It’s possible that there’s a lot of research that can be done by getting away from small, classic petri dishes,” Yeh says. But for now, Kishony’s 4-by-2 is mostly just a demonstration. Hopefully, a useful one, Lieberman says. “Getting more people to understand how quickly bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance might help people understand why they shouldn’t be prescribed antibiotics.”
Ironically, the age of Miracle drugs began about the same time Hollywood started churning out horror B movies. Clearly, both have now run their course.