Battle of the Bacteria: Antibiotics and Antimicrobial Resistance

Written by: Trinity Tooley

Do you ever get sick and can’t seem to shake it? It doesn’t quite seem like a cold; your throat is sore and maybe you have a bit of a fever. You decide your best course of action is to go to the doctor to figure out what the “thing” is that is causing you to feel this way. 

After inspecting and swabbing the back of your throat (Eek!) the doctor tells you they will be in touch. As the phone call comes in you eagerly pick up, and the doctor says they found….. Streptococcus pyogenes? OH! Right! The big, totally complicated name for the bacteria that causes strep throat. 

As you sit there, relieved it is nothing serious, your doctor prescribes an antibiotic to cure your infection by killing the bacteria. You’re eager to get started, but you have questions, including “where do these antibiotics come from and how do they work anyway?” 

Antibiotics are chemicals produced from microorganisms including bacteria, that are essentially able to kill other microbes. Like us, bacteria inhabit a very diverse and competitive environment, so they have adapted ways- like producing antibiotics- to ensure they can thrive amongst their competitors for access to nutrients and favourable environments. Antibiotics are able to work against microbes in a variety of ways by targeting some of their key functions and properties (Learn more about the way antibiotics work here). Surprisingly, bacteria that most commonly produce antibiotics are found in the soil because of the diversity and abundance of nutrients often found in this environment. For example, Streptomyces, one of the most abundant bacteria in soil is responsible for around 80% of commercially available antibiotics. Streptomyces also produces geosmin, which is the chemical that is responsible for the earthy odour we all recognize in the springtime!  Who knew that it was so common for bacteria to compete against each other? Perhaps an Olympic-style event for bacteria is in order. 

Alt text: Various types of bacteria within the six Olympic rings.

Antibiotics are powerful tools, but they are also a victim of their own success because they have become overprescribed or used inappropriately both in medicine and agriculture, leading to an issue known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR occurs when bacteria change so that the antibiotics/drugs used to kill them are no longer effective. These changes can be passed on to other bacteria, meaning AMR can be heritable. Just like we are able to inherit different characteristics from our parents, bacteria can inherit resistance too! AMR can arise for many reasons such as over-prescription, the use of antibiotics in animal feed, improper use of antibiotics, and many more. This article discusses some of the mechanisms of AMR and the implications for public health. A recent study outlining the global burden of AMR revealed that more than 100,000 deaths in 2019 were associated with AMR. So, what does this mean for us? A bunch of stubborn bacteria that do not want to die, and doctors/scientists without an effective way to treat the illness they cause. Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical companies have stopped researching and developing new antibiotics because of their short-term use and decreased financial profit. It is important to note that many antibiotics are still effective, but the rate of AMR is increasing, and we need to do something to stop it. 

Alt text: Bacteria using the antibiotic normally used to kill it as a punching bag to show the bacteria has become resistant. 

Further research to discover new antibiotics is needed to help overcome the AMR crisis. Encouraging scientists to investigate other bacteria found in our surrounding environment, such as in the soil, will hopefully lead to the discovery of new antibiotics. Current research in this field has gained popularity amongst student researchers, and programs like Tiny Earth help to encourage students to delve into new antibiotic discovery. Through Tiny Earth, students are able to isolate bacteria from a sample of soil they collect, and perform a variety of tests to characterize what they are and determine if they too are antibiotic producing. After all, there are likely millions of bacteria that have yet to be discovered, let’s hope maybe one of them will win the gold medal. So, with that, let the battle of bacteria continue and stay tuned for the broadcasted Olympic event- it is sure to be a good one. 

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