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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Pokémon Gone: why the summer’s most popular app lost over 12 million users in a month

Four ex-players of Niantic's record-breaking game explain why they stopped trying to Catch ’Em All. 

Drowzees. That’s the short answer. The tapir-like psychic Pokémon wiggles its short trunk and stubby yellow fingers all across the land, meaning anyone on a mission to Catch ’Em All inevitably encounters hundreds of the critters. Wherever you go, whatever you do, they are waiting. They are watching. And they are part of the reason the biggest US mobile game ever has lost 12 million users in a month.

According to a report by Bloomberg, based on data from Axiom Capital Management, Niantic's Pokémon Go has seen a rapid decline in the number of users and user engagement. The game has dropped from nearly 45 million players in July to just over 30 million now.

Of course, like Team Rocket in a hot air balloon over Cerulean city, Pokémon Go had a long way to fall. After the initial frenzy and hype, it makes sense that the next set of headlines about the game would be exposing a decreased number of downloads and active users. No one can keep up chart-topping and revenue-grossing world records forever. But why has it faced such a steep and rapid decline?

The most common answer is that it was all a fad. Brenda Wong, a 23-year-old social media manager from London explains this is why she stopped using the game. “Like most fads, the interest slowly died over time. Life caught up with me and I started playing less and less,” she says. “Maybe it's sad that I now prioritise saving my battery over hatching an Ekans. Maybe.”

This partially explains the decline, but it isn't the whole story. Another argument is that the app is buggy, but considering it managed to maintain its popularity after multiple server crashes in July, that doesn't hold up either. Sure, Pokémon Go is being constantly updated and yes, it does drain your battery – but these aren’t the fundamental issues with the app. The fundamental issue is this: the game just isn’t very good.

Feeling drowzy

This is where the Drowzees come in. Although there are a 150 Pokémon to catch, most users end up catching the same species over and over, as there simply isn’t a wide enough range commonly available (hence any memes you might have seen about Pidgeys and Rattatas). The other main aspect of the app, battling in gyms, has no real endgame and gameplay is mostly aimless.

“I don't have the patience to wade through all the crap Pokémon that are everywhere in order to eventually hope to find something I don't already have,” says Alex Vissaridis, a 26-year-old graphic designer from London.

“I used to play Pokémon Go pretty religiously. I used the App Store hack to get it from the US store before it was released in the UK. I'd turn it on as soon as I'd leave home in the morning. I'd go on PokéWalks by myself, too, around the local area. I swear I've played it when I'm supposed to be out with friends, you know, socialising. The novelty's worn off now, though.”

Vissaridis’ complaints echo those made on one of the largest online communities of Pokémon Go players, reddit.com/r/pokemongo. Despite remaining loyal to the app, the 806,175 Redditors on this forum frequently suggest ways the game could improve, and bemoan its features such as the lack of meaningful player interaction, no daily log-on bonuses, and a lack of other in-game incentives.

“I'm level 21, and once you get to level 20, the XP points you need to level up are astronomical, and where it used to take a day of solid use to go up one or two levels, it now takes about a week or so. I can't be bothered anymore,” says Vissaridis.

These little town blues

For some users, the game is even worse. Pokéstops are locations in the game where players can pick up items and gain points, and they are found at real-world places of significance. This means users in rural areas, where there isn’t a monument or museum every five metres, are at a disadvantage. There are also fewer gyms – the places where you battle – and fewer Pokémon in general.

“I downloaded Pokémon Go the minute it came out in the UK,” says Amy Marsden, a 22-year-old student from Lancashire. “My friends and I would go off on bikes and try to catch Pokémon, which is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever done in my life. In the end, living in a small town was what killed Pokémon Go for me - there are only so many Pidgey and Rattata a person can take before the game just becomes boring.”

It's just a load of Pokéballs

Daniel Jackson, a 25-year-old journalist from Scotland, also became frustrated by the mechanics of the game. “The novelty wore off when I realised how shallow the experience is. There's not very much to do,” he says.

“I think it would be far more interesting if each species lived within a radius that it roamed around, rather than appearing in a location for a set amount of time before vanishing. I think being able to genuinely hunt for them would have been more engaging.

“When my kids were with me over the summer holidays I was able to convince them to get out more. They usually act like they're allergic to grass and air. So although it was a bit of a disappointment I think the concept is sound and that when it's eventually done well, location-based gaming could become an industry in itself. There are so many possibilities.”

The possibilities are indeed endless, and developers Niantic might still redeem themselves and the game in one of their frequent app updates. Despite Pokémon Go's rapid decline, it's also worth remembering that the app still has an incredible 30 million users. As far as mobile marketing goes, Niantic really did Catch ’Em All. Now they just have to figure out how to keep them. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.