If you’re alive today, you have probably had an experience with antibiotics. Antibiotics are a group of medications that are designed to kill bacteria, a microorganism that can cause illness and disease. If abused or misused, antibiotics could potentially create a large problem in the near future, and there are already signs that it is occurring. You might be thinking, well why the hell are we taking them? Because in some cases, if you don’t, you’d die.
What Are Bacteria?
Bacteria are unicellular, microorganisms. They have a cell wall but lack other characteristics, limiting their complexity.
A single bacteria cell has a membrane around it. Some bacteria have an additional, thick protective layer, while some do not. That layer is called the cell wall. Those that do are typically called gram positive. Others are gram negative. This is a generalization for ease of understanding. The true indicator of Gram positive vs. Gram negative is the cell’s ability to uptake Gram staining.
Inside the cell there could be a range of different organelles. Additionally, genetic material is free standing and not contained in a nucleus. This makes bacteria more susceptible to mutation, or error in their genetic material.
The method of reproduction performed by bacteria is called binary fission. Genetic material is first copied and duplicated before the organism prepares to divide. Binary fission produces two identical offspring called daughter cells. This happens every so often and times vary between species. For reference it can be as fast as 10 minutes and as slow as 1-2 days.
Bacteria live in colonies and colonial growth is exponential. The faster the reproduction rate, the faster the colony grows and the harder the infection is to control. Additionally, the rapid expansion of bacterial colonies means they evolve much faster than other organisms.
Good Bacteria vs Bad Bacteria
Theres alot of different species of bacteria and as a result, some bacteria are good and some are bad. Good bacteria actually live in and on you. This is completely natural and is actually a sign of good health. Most good bacteria live in your gut as part of what is called your microbiome. Recent research has linked changes/abnormalities in your microbiome to different illnesses and diseases.
Bad bacteria cause infection in the body. These infections could take place virtually anywhere, however some common examples include in the lungs (pneumonia), throat (Strep throat), and in the skin (abscess/cellulitis). Most infections are minor and are associated with small cuts. These small infections can usually be handled by our body’s natural defense system, but when our body can’t defend the infection, we turn to antibiotics for help.
Bacterial evolution occurs naturally by random mutation, just like in humans. If we aren’t careful, bacterial evolution can be perpetuated by antibiotics. Are antibiotics only to blame?
Germaphobia is becoming more common in society. Germaphobes often use chemicals that kill bacteria which act like antibiotics and can have similar consequences. Germaphobia and the misuse of antibiotics lead to antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance is not a binary function such as on/off. Instead it acts as a spectrum that leads to decreased effectiveness. The spectrum can be very variable and is difficult to predict. Inversely, when bacteria are exposed in non-toxic doses to an antibiotic, they can learn to defend against it just like our immune system.
Antibiotics stop infections by either killing or preventing population growth. Survival of the fittest, a concept that is crucial in understanding any population of life, is fundamental in understanding evolution. When the fittest bacteria survive, it’s less bacteria that we know we can kill.
Plasmids and Other Genetic Material
Broken dead cells release genetic material that can be picked up by others that may not have those genes, resulting in further spread of antibiotic resistant genes. This can and does occur even when bacteria die naturally. Whole, circular pieces of released genetic material are called Plasmids. However, cells can also pick up fragmented material to incorporate with its current genes.
Antibiotics are a group of drugs that are designed to fight bacterial infections. There was no way to effectively treat these infections, at least until 1928, when Penicillin was accidentally discovered by Alexander Fleming.
Now, antibiotics are commonly used in medicine and come with many names and classes. Chiefly, antibiotics work on two main mechanisms: killing and preventing colonial growth. The two primary killers are Amoxicillin and Cephalexin (Keflex). Here is a list of those that prevent growth and how the do it:
- Doxycycline – Attacks protein synthesis
- Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) – Attacks DNA
- Clindamycin – Attacks protein synthesis
- Metronidazole (Flagyl) – Attacks DNA
- Azithromycin (Zithromax, z-pack) – Attacks protein synthesis
- Sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim (Bactrim) – Attacks folic acid pathway, ultimately preventing the formation of amino acids, or DNA building blocks
- Levofloxacin (Levaquin) – Attacks DNA
How Antibiotics Influence Evolution
Penicillin was first used in 1942 to treat infections and by the 1970s, an evolutionary substance called Beta-lactamase was discovered which inhibited or disarmed penicillin.
Amoxicillin was first medically used in 1972 which is a synthetic form of penicillin. This made producing antibiotics significantly more efficient. By 1981, Amoxicillin and clavulanate were combined to create Augmentin. This drug releases both chemicals. Clavulanic acid binds to the enzymes that inhibit amoxicillin, so it can go on to fight the infection.
What is the result of this? Some fear a superbug may be created. What’s a superbug? Is it really there? What can we do to stop it?
In 2016, a new strain of E. coli was found that could potentially be resistant to many drugs. In 2019, in the US, a bill was proposed called the DISARM Act. The DISARM act was a bill that encouraged pharmaceutical companies to explore possible antimicrobials to defend against possible superbugs. It did not pass and has not been signed into law.
In may of 2020, an opinion article published by Undark and written by Sophie Strosberg, points out that COVID-19 is likely contributing to societal germaphobia. Due to the attentiveness of cleanliness and health, people may be more inclined to make this lifestyle a habit.Strosberg states that this shouldn’t become a habit, and I agree. If we ramp up our efforts to kill bacteria, it will only make them stronger. It will accelerate the evolution of bacteria and push towards the development of a superbug.
What You Can Do
The abuse/misuse of antibiotics largely contributes to antibiotic resistance. To abuse antibiotics would be to take them when you don’t need to. This causes unnecessary exposure of the drug to the bacteria, showing our hand in the game of life.
To misuse antibiotics would be to not take them as prescribed. This could be at inappropriate times, or stopping before you’re supposed to. You don’t necessarily have to be on a schedule to the minute. It is best to ask your doctor how attentive you need to be to your medication schedule. Drugs work over several doses in order to build and maintain a very specific amount of the drug in your body. By missing doses or stopping early, you affect that amount and it could result in incomplete eradication of the infection.