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Antibiotic resistance, evolution, and our future

Human genetic engineering

Without the discovery of antibiotics we could not — and most certainly would not — be living in the world we do today. It was a discovery that would save countless lives, while simultaneously compromising our future. From the use (and unfortunate misuse)  of antibiotics, we gave rise to more virulent bacteria that have become resistant to more and more types of antibiotics.

Evolution, or more importantly, the evolutionary pressure we artificially placed on bacteria, has put us in a unique spot. No longer are we able to fight infection the way we’ve traditionally been able to do. Our previous press release on the subject shows just how desperate we are to find a solution to the antibiotic resistance.

A more pragmatic way of solving the problem isn’t developing new antibiotics, or finding other methods of fighting off bacterial infection; the solution lies with us. Any pressure we put on bacteria will cause the bacteria to evolve and adapt to whatever we can come up to throw at it. This can be seen in all of life, depending on how you classify life, because viruses try to find ways to overcome vaccination regularly (the flu for example).

For those unfamiliar with the concept of evolutionary pressure, when you use a chemical to constantly kill off most bacteria, we selectively eliminate all BUT the bacteria that are immune to the antibiotic. This can be due to a genetic mutation, our creepy friend the plasmid, or other methods of gene transfer. These bacteria are left to reproduce unabashed with every resource available to just that particular strain — rather than competing with other non-antibiotic resistant bacteria for resources.

In short, no matter what we throw at bacteria, it will — eventually — find a way to develop around our defenses. Which is why we should think about flipping the problem on it’s head. Instead of finding ways to kill off the infection in the human body, why not find a way to eliminate the ability to gain a bacterial foothold all together?

This would allow us to live with our little microbial friends instead of trying to fight against them. Of course the solution is not a simple one, nor is it an easy one, but for our purposes it may very well be the only solution in the not so distant future.

Human genome editing is scary, we have historically loved to change everything around us in our world, but have overlooked changing the most important thing, us. So we circumvent us (for now) and look at other sources of antibiotic resistance that we can change without too much fear (relatively speaking, given the anti-scientific era we are living in).

The first logical step would be our food, more antibiotics are given to animals than to humans. So while we wouldn’t be able to halt antibiotic resistance completely, if we can edit the genes of animals to eliminate the ability for harmful bacteria to gain a foothold (while still allowing our natural microbiome to continue obviously) we can stop feeding antibiotics to animals all together. Help accomplishing this may come in a surprisingly unlikely source, our creepy little friend the plasmid.

This will also, ideally at least, help ease the transition to human gene editing against harmful bacteria. In the meantime it would also give us more time with the antibiotics we have by eliminating the overuse in our food supply.

Of course this comes with a list of caveats, first being the understanding that genetic editing is safe and isn’t going to kill us like sci fi movies (or certain very vocal groups) will have you believe, that is another topic altogether however. Second is the realization that genetically editing our food supply has been done for centuries and we are not actually getting good at it, this is a good thing, not a bad one. Again another topic for another time.

The point still remains however, the solution to fighting back isn’t to find new ways to kill off the enemy, it isn’t going anywhere. The solution is to find a way to enable us to live together by changing us. Then again that is the leap everyone is scared to take, so maybe we will never get there. Then again, we are insatiably curious creatures, so maybe it is just a matter of time.

Sources:
Inglis, R., Scanlan, P., & Buckling, A. (2016). Iron availability shapes the evolution of bacteriocin resistance in Pseudomonas aeruginosa The ISME Journal DOI: 10.1038/ismej.2016.15

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