It’s hard to imagine the world prior to antibiotics, a world where even a deep laceration could frequently spell significant illness or even death due to infection. Thankfully, since the discovery of penicillin in 1929 by Alexander Fleming, we now have a range of potent antibiotics to treat many of the various types of bacterial infection.
There is a problem though, bacteria are great survivors and have been competing against other bacteria and microorganisms for billions of years. As Professor Matt Cooper from the University of Queensland puts it “Billions of years ago, bacterial species were engaged in an arms race against each other and the chemicals they developed to kill one another have been modified into today’s antibiotics”.1
Unfortunately it’s our overuse of these important drugs which has driven the rapid development of antibiotic resistance, the process whereby bacteria containing mutations in their DNA, that provide some protection from an antibiotic, have an enormous survival advantage when exposed to the antibiotic and pretty soon dominate. Frequent exposures to the antibiotic may further strengthen these survival traits via the selection process, rendering the the drug less effective over time. It’s a great example of random variations leading to non-random adaptions through natural selection, although one with profound consequences for human health.
Of particular concern are bacteria that have developed resistance to multiple types of antibiotics, resulting in particularly dangerous resistant bacteria such as the multi-drug resistant variants of tuberculosis, that are extremely difficult to treat. Indeed leading health authorities are so worried about the problem that the Chief Medical Officer of the UK, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has recently labelled the threat as “catastrophic