Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bugs and Super-bugs

Clearly I'm in the wrong line of business. If I were an entomologist, or bacteriologist I would be in heaven, and I don't even believe in heaven. It's been starting to rain again, and though I think it's quite early for the monsoon, I'm (mostly) not complaining because the rains bring much cooler temperatures, especially at night. Finally I can fall asleep before 5am, and sleep without sweating. Hallelujah! (Again, I'm not religious, but what is it that we secular types can say that carries the same feeling as "I'd be in heaven" or "hallelujah"?) Unfortunately the rain also brings bugs (and news of superbugs).

Anyway, I posted before about the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the need for a paradigm shift in medicine towards developing pro-biotic treatments. Not just vague advice to "eat yogurt" (or in South India, curd rice - yummy), but a wide variety of healthy happy bacterial treatments to fight the good fight against the bad bacteria.

Curd Rice instead of antibiotics? Sound crazy? Maybe. Maybe not.
Photo Credit: Sulkha.com

The bad bacteria are getting worse, and getting stronger. There are now multiple reports on the identification of a new antibiotic resistant genetic strain called NDM-1 (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase). Aside from a zombie apocalypse, what could be worse than a pandemic outbreak of antibiotic-resistant necrotizing faciitis? (The wikipedia article on necrotizing faciitis has a photo of what this bacteria does to human tissue. If you really want to freak yourself out, check it out full size - but beware, it's really not for the faint of heart, or I would just insert it in the post.)

The problem with this, in case you hadn't noticed, is that NDM-1 is a gene, not a particular type of bacteria. It is currently identified in strains of E. coli, and pneumonia, but that's not all. The gene is highly adaptive in an environment in which antibiotics kill off the bacteria which lack that gene, and can be spread through horizontal gene transfer. In other words, there is strong selection pressure for this gene, and it is likely to spread.

Now let me again make the disclaimer that I am not a physician, or a medical expert of any kind, but it seems to me that the development of new adaptations at the level of genes that can spread across species of bacteria indicates that antibiotics, at least in the form we currently have them are not going to be the now-and-forever solution to illnesses in human populations.

I'm not a big fan of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (I'll save why for another post), but he is right that germs - and one might add, antibiotics - have shaped human history. And they may yet again, in unforeseen and unpleasant ways. Unless we start to think differently, radically differently, about how to combat bacterial disease. Maybe it's just the wishful thinking of a complete non-expert, but it seems as though bacteria have been fighting other bacteria for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only that but many beneficial bacteria exist inside the human body, co-evolved over those millennia, and now are necessary parts of a healthy human digestive system, etc. If bacteria fight other bacteria, and we can live with many different kinds of bacteria in our bodies at healthy, tolerable levels with no detrimental effects, then maybe we should use fire to fight fire? Just a suggestion.

Anyway, in addition to noticing the hubbub around superbugs, I thought I'd take this opportunity to also post a picture of my most recent bug discovery. It's some sort of centipede that I've never seen before.

Unidentified centipede. Red stripe. Fast walker. Suggestions anyone?


Julie said...

My 2nd cousin got necrotizing fasciitis a few years ago...was in a hospital induced coma for 6 weeks and multiple operations. Yes, super-bugs are scary. We need to fight antibiotics so prevalent in the livestock industry as they are contributing bigtime...among other things.

Sleep late... dream more. said...

isn't that a millipede of some sort? btw - I hear that there are some good on-line bug identification websites where you can post a picture + description & get answers..... or else, email Nate Hall! :D

Gwen said...

@Sleep late... I couldn't count centi- versus milli- it was moving too fast. :D I have heard of the online bug identification sites. I guess it's not really my highest priority. But I'll take a look one of these days.

@Julie UGH! Necrotizing fasciitis is really really awful. I hope your cousin is ok now. And yes, the livestock industry is a big part of the problem. Unless we go at them with baseball bats it seems like they're going to be harder to persuade than the medical community which at least has some ethics and sense of obligation.