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Researchers Pinpoint One Mechanism Explaining Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria

antibiotic resistance, bacteria, antibacterial soap

Harvard and MIT joined forces to study antibiotic resistance. Here's one of their findings.


Researchers from both Harvard and MIT undertook a study to further understand the underpinnings of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. It's a very important endeavor since the CDC has announced that over 23,000 U.S. citizens die from diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year. Sometimes doctors just can't do anything when a bacterial infection can't be stopped with antibiotics, especially when surgery doesn't or can't help.

They decided to use a cousin of the bacteria responsible for causing tuberculosis for their experiments. They cultured the bacteria into healthy colonies and then introduced low concentrations of antibiotics that would be too small an amount to kill them fast. This would ensure some bacteria survive long enough to produce mutant progeny.

Scary enough, the method did produce mutant colonies from some bacteria that survived. It's the same thing that happens in your body when you don't follow the doctor's advice to take your antibiotics during his prescribed set interval – some bacteria survive and become resistant. In the study's case, the bacteria that survived long enough to produce progeny became mutated after a few generations.

The researchers isolated these mutants and studied them. They discovered that the mutations happened mostly in their ribosomes, which is where genes are brought via RNA to be transcribed into proteins. (Think of ribosomes like a 3D printer that prints out the final product from the blueprints provided).

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The mutations gave the bacteria better protection against a wide variety of antibiotics, and not just the ones used in the study. The mutations also made the bacteria “tougher” by strengthening their cells' defenses against heat and environmental factors that damage their cell membranes.

But it's not just people who are treated with antibiotics. Farm animals get sick too, and unfortunately, industrial farms care more about their profit margins than about antibiotic resistance. They would much rather use antibiotics generously than trying safer non-antibiotic methods for disease control that are costly and use up too many resources. But it seems antibiotic resistance is caused mostly by improper antibiotic usage by people rather than the agricultural industry.

If you'd like to play your part in curbing bacterial antibiotic resistance, you should do the following:

Go through the full course of your antibiotics. If your doctor prescribes you antibiotics and you start feeling better after a couple of days, don't stop! Most people stop their antibiotics because they think they're cured – but there's probably some bacteria remaining in your system. If you let them live, they could produce mutants, just like in the study.

Don't use antibacterial soap. Antibacterial soap usually has some kind of antibiotic in it. Using antibacterial soap exposes this antibiotic to scores of bacteria in the air, in the sewer, and wherever it ends up! Remember that in the study the bacteria became resistant to many antibiotics just by being exposed to one. Exposing bacteria to the antibiotic in antibacterial soap could make them resistant to the antibiotics your doctor prescribes next time you're ill.

Hopefully one day researchers will find a way to end antibiotic resistance in pathogens. But for now all you can do is play your part and help curb antibiotic resistance.