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Antibiotics and the Bacteria That Resist Them

How antibiotics become resistant and how scientists are working to stop them.

By Kathy CraigPublished 7 years ago 5 min read

Since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first natural antibiotic, in 1928 we have been killing or slowing the growth of many types of bacteria with development of new antibiotics that are more and more powerful. At the time of Fleming’s discovery, he predicted that we would see the current rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. After the discovery of penicillin other antibiotics related to it were developed such as benzylpenicillin, amoxicillin, and ampicillin that are still being routinely used to fight various bacterial infections. These usually work best for urinary tract, chest and skin infections. More modern antibiotics have been developed to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections.

Why We Use Antibiotics

Our body’s immune system can usually kill bacterial threats by building up and releasing white blood cells to attack the bacteria and fight off the infection. This happens more often than we notice because the immune system is taking care of things before the bacteria have the chance to multiply and cause symptoms. In most cases, we can fight off bacterial infections even after symptoms appear. Sometimes the immune system becomes overwhelmed by a fast spreading bacteria or multiple bacterial attacks on the body. When this happens, antibiotics are needed to help the immune system along in controlling the infection.

Antibiotics are used when an infection is unlikely to clear naturally with the immune system. They are also used when an infection could be transferred to others if it goes untreated. Infections that could take too long to clear on their own or that may carry risks of serious complications require the use of antibiotics. Individuals that are at a higher risk of infections are sometimes given antibiotics as a precaution.

The Downside of Antibiotics

Antibiotics also have their downfalls. Though serious side effects are rare, the most common of them, such as nausea, diarrhea, bloating and indigestion, can be quite uncomfortable. Allergic reactions are possible, especially with penicillin and cephalosporins. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that occurs rarely and is a medical emergency. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t take certain types of antibiotics and some antibiotics can react with other medications, such as alcohol and oral contraceptive pills. Physicians are aware of interactions and will decide which antibiotic is the correct choice for an individual depending on these factors as well as their specific type of infection.

Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Antibiotics should be taken only when necessary and they should not be over used. Health organizations all over the world are trying to reduce the use of antibiotics because overuse can lead to a loss of effectiveness. This overuse has allowed strains of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Clostridium difficile (C. Diff), tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE) are all “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. They are very challenging to treat and for that reason, they are all very serious infections that cause disability and death in many patients.

How Bacteria Become Resistant To Antibiotics

Bacteria builds a resistance to antibiotics by coming up with various ways of countering their attack. Bacteria begin to reducing the number of areas available for the antibiotic drugs to diffuse through and even shoot antibiotics out of the cell in order to avoid them. Some bacteria change the structure of the target so the antibiotic doesn’t recognize it to attach and prevent it from interacting with other molecules. Some bacteria even produce enzymes that destroy the antibiotic. Some antibiotic resistant bacteria make use of capabilities they already have but did not need to use in these ways before. Others acquire resistance by genetic mutation. There are a few ways that these genes are acquired including a joining together of two bacteria to transfer DNA to each other. One plasmid, a tiny piece of DNA, can encode resistance to many antibiotics. They are also able to find genes among dead and degraded bacteria. After a bacteria gets one of these genes, all of the new bacteria that it creates will also have the gene. Bacteria with the resistant genes outgrow and survive easier than those without it.

How We Contribute To The Problem

Our use of antibiotics adds to their ability to produce and reproduce these resistant bacteria. When we stop taking our medication before the bacteria is completely eradicated, we have stopped helping our immune system to kill off the last of the infection. Any resistant bacteria that remains can take hold and spread to other people. Insisting on antibiotics to treat a cold or flu accomplishes nothing because antibiotics can’t fight a virus. When you take an antibiotic, it can’t tell the difference between bacteria that is helpful to our body and those that are harmful. When you have no bacteria other than the “good bacteria” in your body, the antibiotic will attack those. This can actually be counterproductive to your recovery from a virus as well as opening the door for “bad bacteria” to come in and set up residence where the good ones once lived. Taking leftover antibiotics will not work for every infection. Different bacteria require different antibiotics to treat. Doctors know what antibiotic is effective for each bacteria as well as how long and how much you should take to clear the infection.

How Scientists Are Working To Fix The Problem

Researchers are currently working to develop a gene editing system that can turn off certain genes in bacteria that help it to resist the effects of antibiotics. They have done this by using the immune system of the bacteria against it. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Snterspersed Short Palindromic Repeats) is a set of proteins that are used by the bacteria as a defense mechanism against viruses. Genes in a virus that attack bacteria are rendered ineffective by the use of the bacteria’s CRISPR arrangement. Essentially, a certain protein in the CRISPR recognizes a specific sequence of DNA and destroys it. By changing the RNA address to target the DNA sequence of our choosing, we can direct it to destroy the bacterial gene. By doing this, we can render the bacteria harmless. They have also found a way to turn the bacteria against itself by having the bacteria that is now harmless, pass on the mutated gene to other bacteria which leaves them harmless to also pass it along. This destroys the infection in much the same way that it was created.


About the Creator

Kathy Craig

Kathy Craig is a freelance writer of more than two decades in both print and digital media, specializing in health and science writing. She is currently writing a book about recent medical breakthroughs.

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