If you attack them, it will only make them stronger.


Soil ‘ultra-bugs’ thrive on a diet of antibiotics

  • 19:00 03 April 2008
  • NewScientist.com news service
  • Ewen Callaway


So these researchers were randomly looking for naturally occurring bacteria in soil. They wanted to find some that would help convert biomaterial (e.g. switch grass or corn) into biofuel. They needed to do a negative control, so they grew soil in the presence of a bunch of antibiotics. That way they could see what their results look like when using sterile soil. They needed that to get a good baseline for comparison. There was just one problem: some of the bacteria in the soil grew like gangbusters.


Yep, these bugs ate the antibiotics and multiplied. It’s like the hero shooting the bad guy full of lead, and the bad guy absorbs the bullets and grows bigger. Wait, didn’t they do that in the Blob or the Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman? “Stop shooting, it’s only making it stronger!” Yeah, so that turns out to be real.


I was worried about all the low levels of antibiotics saturating the world. There was bound to be some that lived and grew to give the population resistance to antibiotics, but I never imagined they would actually learn to EAT the drugs. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Bioremediation uses naturally occurring bacteria to eat petroleum. That’s how nature cleans up from our oil spills. In fact, in Alaska, our efforts to pressure wash the oil from the rocks actually killed off those bacteria so it took (is still taking?) longer for the coast to recover.


But where’s the plot? I see a biotech thriller (much like the one I wrote and haven’t finished editing). The bad guys engineer their bug to thrive on whatever would be used against it. That way when they release it on the unsuspecting world, the efforts to stop it will only make it worse. It has been done before, but never with hard science. Now we can write about a super bug without having to wave our hands too much.



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