Don’t let the superbugs bite

But don't despair - we might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

Evolution continues to be a bitch. Recently scientists gathered in Kensington, London, to have a good moan and to plan what can be done about it. “Superbugs and Superdrugs” is a great title for a meeting. Unfortunately the bugs seem to be more super than the drugs.

While that meeting went on, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning that we are entering a “nightmare” era. The CDC’s problem is a killer bacterium known as CRE, which is spreading in the US. Some strains of CRE are not only resistant to all antibiotics; they are also passing on that resistance to other bacteria, creating drug-resistant strains of E coli, for instance. On 11 March, Sally Davies, the UK government’s chief medical officer, asked the government to add the superbug problem to its “strategic risk register”, which highlights potentially catastrophic threats to the UK.

For a while, it all looked so good. When scientists discovered penicillin, then ever more weapons for our antibiotic arsenal, it seemed that bacteria had been defeated. The problem is, they fought back.

For all the worry over CRE, perhaps nowhere is this antibiotic resistance more evident than with tuberculosis. In the west, we won the war on TB so convincingly that receiving the BCG vaccine against it – once a waymark in British childhood – is no longer routine. Only in certain inner-city communities where migrant populations increase the likelihood of encountering the TB bacterium are children routinely immunised. However, in 2011, the World Health Organisation marked London out as the city with the highest TB infection rate in western Europe.

Many resistant bacteria originate in hospitals, where pharmaceutical regimes kill off the normal strains, making space in which bacteria that are naturally resistant can proliferate. Yet you can’t always blame the drugs. Research published at the end of February shows that drug resistance can arise even when the bacteria have never encountered a chemical meant to kill them.

In the study, E coli bacteria were made to suffer by exposing them to heat and restricting the nutrients in their environment. According to conventional wisdom, this should have kept proliferation in check – but it caused a spontaneous mutation that made the E coli resistant to rifampicin, one of the weapons in our antibiotic arsenal. What is worse is the observation that there was good reason for this mutation to arise: it made the stressful conditions more survivable. Bacteria with the mutation grew much faster.

Bacteria are survivors – if they can’t magic up a spontaneous mutation, they’ll pick one up in the street. A sampling of puddles in New Delhi showed that almost a third contain the genetic material that allows bacteria to produce an enzyme that destroys a swath of antibiotics. The NDM-1 gene is particularly evil. Its tricks include forcing itself into gut bacteria such as E coli that are incorporated into faeces; as a result, the resistant strains travel between hosts with ease.

Many infections involving a bacterium carrying NDM-1 are untreatable. GlaxoSmithKline is reportedly developing a drug to deal with it but it is years behind the curve. In the autumn, an EU project to mine the seabed for so far undiscovered antibiotics will start up, but it will take years for that, too, to bear fruit.

Let’s end on a positive note. Superbugs might be evolving in fiendish ways but they’re doing it blind and they’re up against evolution’s greatest invention – the human brain. We might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

The EHEC bacteria. Image: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Amazon's unlikely role in the Calais relief efforts

Campaigners are using Amazon's wishlist feature - more commonly used for weddings and birthdays - to rally supplies for the thousands camped at Calais. 

Today and yesterday, relief efforts have sprung up across the web and IRL following the publication of shocking photos of a drowned refugee child. People are collecting second hand clothes and food, telling David Cameron to offer refuge, and generally funneling support and supplies to the thousands in Calais and across Europe who have been forced from their homes by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. 

One campaign, however, stuck out in its use of technology to crowdsource supplies for the Calais camp. An Amazon wishlist page - more familiar as a way to circulate birthday lists or extravagant wedding registries - has been set up as part of the  #KentforCalais and #HelpCalais campaigns, and is collecting donations of clothes, food, toiletries, tents and sleeping supplies. 

Judging by the Twitter feed of writer and presenter Dawn O'Porter, one of the list's organisers, shoppers have come thick and fast. Earlier today, another user tweeted that there were only six items left on the list - because items had sold out, or the requested number had already been purchased - and O'Porter tweeted shortly after that another list had been made. Items ordered through the list will be delivered to organisers and than transported to Calais in a truck on 17 September. 

This, of course, is only one campaign among many, but the repurposing of an Amazon feature designed to satiate first world materialism as a method of crisis relief seems to symbolise the spirit of the efforts as a whole. Elsewhere, Change.org petitions, clothes drives organised via Facebook, and Twitter momentum (which, in this case, seems to stretch beyond the standard media echo chamber) have allowed internet users to pool their anger, funds and second-hand clothes in the space of 24 hours. It's worth noting that Amazon will profit from any purchases made through the wishlist, but that doesn't totally undermine its usefulness as a way to quickly and easily donate supplies. 

Last year, I spoke to US writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield, who was involved New York's Occupy Sandy movement (which offered relief after after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2011) and he emphasised the centrality of technology to the relief effort in New York:

Occupy Sandy relied completely on a Googledocs spreadsheet and an Amazon wishlist.  There was a social desire that catalysed uses of technology through it and around it. And if that technology didn't exist it might not have worked the way it did. 

So it's worth remembering, even as Amazon suffers what may be the worst PR disaster in its history and Silicon Valley's working culture is revealed to be even worse than we thought, that technology, in the right hands, can help us make the world a better place. 

You can buy items on the Amazon wishlist here or see our list of other ways to help here

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.