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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Why did Julian Assange lose his internet connection?

Rumours of paedophilia have obscured the real reason the WikiLeaks founder has been cut off from the internet. 

In the most newsworthy example of "My house, my rules" this year, Julian Assange's dad (the Ecuadorian embassy in London) has cut off his internet because he's been a bad boy. 

Rumours that the WikiLeaks' founder was WiFi-less were confirmed by Ecuador's foreign ministry late last night, which released a statement saying it has "temporarily restricted access to part of its communications systems in its UK Embassy" where Assange has been granted asylum for the last four years. 

Claims that the embassy disconnected Assange because he had sent sexually explicit messages to an eight-year-old girl —first reported by the US political blog Daily Kos — have been quashed. Wikileaks responded by denying the claims on Twitter, as Ecuador explained the move was taken to prevent Assange's interference with the US election. The decision follows the publication of leaked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign adviser John Podesta, as well as emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), by WikiLeaks.

Ecuador "respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states," read the statement, though the embassy have confirmed they will continue to grant Assange asylum. 

Assange first arrived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012, after being sought for questioning in Sweden over an allegation of rape, which he denies. WikiLeaks claims this new accusation is a further attempt to frame Assange.  "An unknown entity posing as an internet dating agency prepared an elaborate plot to falsely claim that Julian Assange received US$1M from the Russian government and a second plot to frame him sexually molesting an eight year old girl," reads a news story on the official site.

It is unclear when Assange will be reconnected, although it will presumably be after the US presidential election on 8 November.

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