In a previous article I wrote about a unique evolutionary arms race that was occurring between a small newt and garter snake. As a short review, the newt was producing a toxin to fend off predation and the snake had evolved resistance to the toxin. Locked in this race of ever increasing toxicity nature had produced a tiny newt capable of killing animals many thousands of times its own size and a snake capable of eating one of the most poisonous animals on Earth.
Humanity faces its own arms race today, and it is one of great concern.
Resistance to antibiotics is at the very top of the list for current and future health concerns. A 2014 publication chaired by Jim O’Neill titled “Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations” stirred the pot a bit by estimating around 10 million deaths per year by 2050 potentially. This has come under scientific scrutiny since, but no matter the estimate, the fact of the problem remains and the death toll will rise.
Since the discovery of antibiotics, our species has been playing the game of newt and snake. As we produced and utilized antibiotics to kill our microbial foes, they countered our attacks with resistance to the drugs. Penicillin saved the lives of countless WW2 soldiers, but just a decade later it was failing. New drugs like methicillin came out in 1960 to pick up the slack for our failing “magic bullets,” but we discovered methicillin resistance in staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, just two years later. Will our end be at the hands of “superbugs” fully immune to our chemical warfare and impossible to destroy or will science save humanity and stay one step ahead of the ever-evolving microbes?
I wish I could answer this question, but it is a tough one. I know the power of natural selection and I know the power of scientific progress, but predicting the end to this arms race is difficult.
There is hope! Google the words “girl saved by virus” and you will run into countless news stories and videos from May 2019, detailing how a 15-year-old cystic fibrosis patient was saved from a fully antibiotic resistant microbe by injecting her with a virus. The modified virus was a bacteriophage, one of the natural enemies of bacteria.
These bacteriophages, which have always resembled a type of tiny alien landing craft to me, attack bacteria and reproduce inside them until they die. They can evolve with the microbe and have been used as a treatment for many years now in countries like Russia. They offer hope in our fight against the perfect storm we created, via the misuse and overuse of antibiotics.
There are a few novel drugs out there that are attacking these resistant bacteria in new ways. You can rest assured that science is on it, constantly thinking of and testing ways to solve the problem. Searching “antibiotic resistance” on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s homepage will yield a wealth of data on the history and future of this problem.