When Mutant Diseases Attack: Villainous Superbugs
Antibiotics are an example of the extraordinary becoming the ordinary. Antibiotic is something that destroys bacteria or at least stops them growing, and this makes it a very powerful tool. Chances are that everyone has taken or will take antibiotics at some point in their life. They do their job so effectively that bacteria have become much less deadly to us. Bringing us out of a world where even a cut can be deadly if it gets infected, while doctors wait and hope.
Bring us to today where antibiotic is largely taken for granted and this has led to overuse. Antibiotics are so effective at their job that people have been inclined to used them all the time and why wouldn’t they. Antibiotics were like a silver bullet, until they started to become less effective. Bacteria had been developing a resistance to our antibiotics. While bacteria resistant to several antibiotics are called superbugs.
The new discovery
1928: Alexander Fleming returned from holiday. He noticed that one of his bacteria samples had been contaminated with a mould. He noticed something strange; the area around the mould was free from the bacteria. The mould had produced some sort of juice that had stopped the bacteria from growing. Flash forward to the 1940s and the mould juice had been produced into Penicillin and was one of the first antibiotics. It helped to kick-start a new way to combat disease.
An old advertisement from the 1940s about Penicillin via Wikimedia Commons
Imperfect cloning: origin of mutations
We are made of cells these are the tiny building block that form an organism. The cell’s functions are dictated by its genetic code, this defines what it is and what it does. The sole thing that infections seek to do is to spread that involves making clones (copies) of itself. A bacterium copies its genetic code and spits into 2 and forms the two parts into 2 new bacteria. This quickly form many new bacteria.
However, with so many divisions errors occur in the code, this is called a mutation, changing the code. The changes in the genetic code causes the bacteria to behave differently. These mutations could do something to resist the way antibiotics work.
As people use antibiotics more the bacteria they kill off bacteria except the ones with specific mutations. These mutations make it so that the bacteria have a resistance to the antibiotics and these bacteria go on and multiple. This renders our antibiotics less effective or useless against these new groups of bacteria, so we need to use different antibiotics. It’s a vicious cycle, which is why we need to avoid using antibiotics where necessary, so there are less opportunities for bacteria to develop a resistance.
The white discs are different antibiotics and the slug is many bacteria cluttered together. Left shows the bacteria are not growing because they aren’t resistant to antibiotics. Right shows that not every antibiotic is working, as the bacteria have developed a resistance. Via Wikimedia Commons
What we must do
Antibiotics resistance is occurring because we are overusing our antibiotics. We need to cut back when antibiotics is not needed. This includes only using antibiotics when your doctor prescribes them and follow their instructions on how to consume them.
We can also limit the spread of disease; this is done by maintaining good hygiene overall. Wash your hands often, but don’t use antibacterial soaps (they don’t work better), normal soap is best.
Vaccines, it’s not rocket science, get your vaccines. Vaccines even have the bonus of stopping you getting sick in the first place.
For more information check out the World Health Organisation’s factsheet http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/antibiotic-resistance/en/.