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

20th Century Fox
Show Hide image

It’s 2016, so why do printers still suck?

Hewlett Packard recently prevented third-party cartridges from working in their printers, but this is just the latest chapter of home printing's dark and twisted history. 

In order to initiate their children into adulthood, the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon weave stinging ants into gloves and ask teenage boys to wear them for a full ten minutes. The British have a similar rite of passage, though men, women, and children alike partake. At one point in their short, brutal little lives, every citizen must weep at the foot of a printer at 2am, alternatively stroking and swearing at it, before falling into a heap and repeating “But there is no paper jam” 21 times.

There are none alive that have escaped this fate, such is the unending crapness of the modern home printer. And against all odds, today printers have hit the news for becoming even worse, as a Hewlett Packard update means their machines now reject non-branded, third-party ink cartridges. Their printers now only work with the company’s own, more expensive ink.

Although it’s surprising that printers have become worse, we’re already very used to them not getting any better. The first personal printers were unleashed in 1981 and they seemingly received the same treatment as the humble umbrella: people looked at them and said, “What? No, this? No way this can be improved.”

It’s not true, of course, that printing technology has stagnated over the last 35 years. But in a world where we can 3D print clitorises, why can’t we reliably get our tax returns, Year 9 History projects, and insurance contracts from our screens onto an A4 piece of paper in less than two hours?

It’s more to do with business than it is technology. Inkjet printers are often sold at a loss, as many companies decide instead to make their money by selling ink cartridges (hence HP’s latest update). This is known as a “razor and blades” business model, whereby the initial item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It explains why your ink is so expensive, why it runs out so quickly, and the most common complaint of all: why your cyan cartridge has to be full in order to print in black and white.

But technology is complicit in the crime. HP’s new update utilises the chips on ink cartridges to tell whether a refill is one of their own, and have also previously been used to region-block cartridges so they can’t be sold on in other countries. Those little chips are also the thing that tells the printer when your ink is empty. Very good. Fine. Except in 2008, PC World found that some printers will claim the cartridges are empty when they are actually nearly half-full.

Back to business. Because this profit models means companies sell printers for so little, quality inevitably suffers. If they’re not selling them for much, companies will naturally try to keep the costs of making their printers down, and this is the reason for your “Load paper in tray two”s, your “Paper jam”s and your “Would you like to cancel this print job? Nope, sorry, too late, here are 100 copies.”

So why are printers bad at networking? This isn’t a set up to a lame joke (unless the joke is, of course, your life as you try to get your wireless printer and your PC to connect). There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this, other than the fact that Bluetooth is still fairly patchy anyway. Some errors, just as you suspected, happen for no bloody damn good bloody reason at all.

On a bigger scale, the printers in your office are difficult because they work harder than you ever have. It’s a stressful job, for sure, and this naturally comes with errors and jams. The reason they are so hard to fix after the inevitable, however, again comes back to capitalism. Because printers don’t have a universal design, most companies will protect theirs, meaning you can’t know the specifics in order to fix a device yourself. This way, they also make money by sending out their own personal technicians.

Thankfully, although every personal printer you’ve ever bought seems to be on collaborative quest to drive you to madness, there is an easy fix. Buy a laser printer instead. Though the device and the replacement toner cartridges are more expensive, in the long-run you’ll most likely save money. In the meantime, there's only one solution: PC load letter. 

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