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 I’m sick of fake theorists lamenting the “millennial problem”

Wise Thinkers lament smartphones, social media, and self-entitlement – ignoring how badly off this generation is thanks to its predecessors.

There is a certain sort of Wise Thinker who loves nothing more than to offer advice on the “problem” of “millennials”. Oh, Wise Thinker, where has this mysterious generation of lazy, entitled narcissists come from, and how am I supposed to deal with the ones who keep showing up in my office?

The answer, we’re told, is a massive failure in parenting that started in the 1980s – suddenly children were told they were special, that they could do anything they wanted to. Worse, they were shown they didn’t have to work for it – they were given participation medals just for showing up, and any time they did badly at school, they didn’t need to improve; their parents just complained to get them better marks!

No evidence that any of this is substantially true (or caused the claimed effects) need be offered: that can be left as an exercise to the reader’s own preconceptions.

(They’ve given out participation medals in the modern Olympics since it started in 1896, by the way. No one ever seems to mention that.)

A particularly refined example of this sort of thing has been doing the rounds of social media recently – a video clip in which motivational speaker and TED talkist Simon Sinek rehearses the familiar lines but then makes a rather bolder claim: millennials are losing the capacity for joy (and some of them are even killing themselves), and it’s all because of mobile phones.

Their use of mobile phones and social media is addictive, Sinek says, in exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol. He refers to the brain chemical dopamine, which immediately turns his every utterance into rigorous neuroscience – regardless of the quantity and quality of the evidence available to support it.

That every millennial is suffering from this terrible addiction is taken as read, as much as everyone who’s ever had a glass of wine is a raging alcoholic. Non-millennials, we all know, completely eschew the mobile phone and have never been seen on Facebook.

But this is only part of the broader millennial addiction to instant gratification – same-day delivery, movies-on-demand, even getting a date is now as simple as swiping right, as anyone who’s never actually tried online dating will surely agree!

It seems all millennials can have everything they want, whenever they want it, so they will never learn the hard lessons that the Wise Thinkers learned in the old times: how to be patient, how to have self-restraint, how to work hard for something.

This can surely be the first time in history in which the old have considered the young to be impatient and lazy.

Worst-case scenario? Sinek points to a rise in depression and suicide, and lets us draw arbitrary lines as we please. His best-case scenario: the millennial will never learn how to find joy, unless, apparently, their benevolent employer helps them with such innovative solutions as banning phones in meetings. Sure.

There is of course nothing wrong with some scepticism towards new technology and the effect it can have on the fragile human mind. If only we had heeded the scientist Conrad Gessner’s dire warning of a powerful new invention that would overwhelm, confuse and ultimately harm us with its unstoppable flood of information. That invention? The book. Gessner lived through the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. History doesn’t record whether or not he wore stupid glasses.

But maybe Sinek is right – maybe only by abandoning the embrace of Siri will you know true love, millennials, some of you who are actually in your mid-thirties these days and have probably already started tutting at those younger than you who never learned “real” patience by sending texts on a Nokia 3310.

It must be a lot of fun, theorising about the possible origins of the “millennial problem”, and coming up with brilliant outside-the-box solutions to it. Weird, though, that all these Wise Thinkers never seem to talk about how many millennials started their careers in the midst (or the aftermath) of an uncertain job market caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Or how many of them had to start their careers with unpaid internships. Or, more fundamentally, that they’re the first generation for decades to earn lower wages than their predecessors.

Perhaps, for some strange reason, managers so supposedly desperate to understand millennial employees are not quite as interested in paying motivational speakers to tell them about things like that.