[MUSIC] In his book “Microcosm” Carl Zimmer says…
ow! There’s an old saying about death by a thousand
papercuts. But what if it just took one? That’s silly, right? I mean, even if this
DID get infected, we’ve got antibiotics to clean us up, it’s easy as aspirin. But
that all might be about to change. New types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
are starting to take over, some able to beat every drug we throw at them. [MUSIC] We may be entering the post-antibiotic era,
where something like this… could be the end of me…
all thanks to superbugs. [MUSIC] News flash! Everything is covered in bacteria.
That. Definitely that. Oh yeah, they’re ALL over that.
In fact, even YOU are full of bacteria. You might as well be a sentient sack whose main job
is to carry around 100 trillion or so microbes. But hey, at least you’ve got purpose! Usually they aren’t anything to worry about,
because most bacteria aren’t dangerous, heck, some are even our friends. Thanks for
helping me digest breakfast, guys!! But sometimes, we meet the bad guys in the
form of bacterial infections. But hey, no problem, we’ve got antibiotics! A few pills,
you’re back to normal, right as rain, ship shape! Unfortunately that might soon be a thing of
the past. We’ve got armies of superbugs laughing tiny bacterial laughs in the face
of every drug we throw at them. How did this happen? To understand that, we need to look
at where antibiotics come from. There’s probably more bacterial mass on
Earth than every other living thing combined. In one spoonful of soil, there might be more
than a billion microbes of more than 10,000 different species, and not just bacteria but
also microscopic fungi, some cooperating, others locked in chemical warfare. It’s that chemical warfare that allowed
Alexander Fleming to discover the very first antibiotic, by accident.
While cleaning off his lab bench, he saw a petri dish had become contaminated with mold,
and on it all the bacteria had died, as if the mold was secreting poison.
That fungus was a strain of Penicillium, and the antibiotic that was isolated from it,
penicillin. Early on doctors couldn’t purify enough
of it to actually use it in humans. One of the first patients to receive penicillin was
a British policeman who developed a deadly infection after being scratched by a rose
bush in his garden. He had to have that penicillin filtered out
of his urine to get the next dose, that’s how valuable it was. He ended up dying anyway,
but the age of antibiotics had begun! Since then, these drugs have saved millions
of lives, maybe even yours! Thanks to them, we can treat pretty much every disease that
used to kill you in Oregon Trail. But now that’s changed. Each year, nearly
two million people in the U.S. become infected with bacteria resistant to at least one antibiotic,
and 23,000 of those people die. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are here. Well,
not HERE, here. I hope. So how does resistance work?
Sometimes random mutations result in anti-antibiotic superpowers, but bacteria are also able to
swap genes the way we swap baseball cards, thanks to a process called gene transfer,
either sweeping up antibiotic resistance in the genetic remains of dead bacteria or exchanging
it during a sort of bacterial makeout session we call conjugation. Bacteria like Staphylococcus have gained the
ability to rebuild their cell wall faster than one antibiotic breaks it down. Other
bacteria have “learned” how to make pumps that flush antibiotics out of the cell before
they do their job. Even in 1945 Fleming himself had already seen
bacteria become resistant to penicillin. Dunno, maybe we shoulda seen this coming?
Antibiotics we DO have today have come mainly from the environment, we’ve adopted the
natural weapons that microbes use to wage war on each other… but that also means they’ve
had billions of years to develop resistance. It seems like wherever nature has developed
an antibiotic, it’s also developed a way to fight it. Resistance seems like an inevitable
result of evolution. Of course we are doing our part to help the
superbugs succeed. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people
are prescribed antibiotics for viral infections. Antibiotics DO NOT KILL VIRUSES. Let me just
repeat that: Antibiotics DO NOT KILL VIRUSES. And every time you don’t finish your full
prescription, you run the risk of leaving super-strong stragglers behind.
Special antibacterial soaps? NO! Soap is antibacterial by definition, I promise.
Those special additives do nothing to make us safer, and probably make the bugs stronger. So what can we do?
With bacteria figuring out how to beat antibiotics within years of their release, most drug companies
aren’t super-motivated to invest the billions it takes to develop new ones. In 2004 there
were only 5 antibiotics in development. But hope is not lost. Besides not getting
infected in the first place, we need to research new ways to fight bad bacteria, using materials
that are naturally antimicrobial, or phage therapy, which uses viruses that infect bacteria
to fight infections. We might even be able to use good bacteria
to fight the bad, like using fecal transplants to fight Clostridium difficile infections
in the digestive system. Yep… fecal transplants. Who would have thought
that poop could be used as medicine? We also have to look at where our food comes
from. Factory farms use 80% of all antibiotics, where they can contaminate the environment
and drive the evolution of superbugs. And stop prescribing them for viral infections!
It’s a cold, people! We’re playing a game of coevolution, an
arms race, with our health at stake. Drugs and bacteria are like cheetahs and gazelles,
the cheetah gets faster, and the gazelles have to speed up to survive.
Except I think maybe we’re the gazelles, and I’m not sure how much faster we can
run. I mean, did we learn nothing from Jurassic
Park? Let’s face it: Bacteria were here first.
They’ve got like a 3 billion year head start on this whole life thing, so it’s not surprising
that they’ve worked out some pretty good survival skills. In the past 100 years, next to clean water
and vaccinations, it’s likely that nothing has saved more lives than antibiotics, but
we’ve got some work to do to avoid a future where paper cuts and sore throats are deadly.
But hey, we’re pretty good at surviving too. Stay curious… and… go wash your hands. Hey, I’m Anna from “Gross Science”! Want to
know more about fecal transplants? Head over to my channel to find out why anyone would
want to use poop as medicine.