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Antibiotic Resistance

By Henry Shi

The rise of antibiotic resistance has made treatment more difficult. Patients are now dying from diseases that were once treatable 5 years ago (PBS). Antibiotics used to cure patients of diseases, but at a cost: their rampant usage caused bacterial populations to evolve drug resistance. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as “staph” or MRSA, has been particularly troublesome (CDC). MRSA spreads through contact with infected surgical tools and has caused pneumonia and blood infections in patients. It kills 23,000 Americans in hospitals every year (Reuters). As hospitals fight to control MRSA, a different strain of MRSA has evolved independently outside the healthcare system. It causes drug-resistant skin infections, also known as “flesh-eating disorder.” MRSA outbreaks in schools and gyms result in thousands of deaths annually. Indeed, bacteria such as MRSA have the uncanny ability to evolve rapidly and resist various drug treatments. In 2016, Congress approved a $160 million grant to combat resistant bacteria, which have spread across the country. Indeed, as stated by Dr. Srinivasan of the CDC, “We’re in the post-antibiotic age.”

In the face of this resistance crisis, we must realize that antibiotics induce natural selection in bacterial populations (World Health Organization). Bacteria multiply rapidly and have short lifespans, so they are prone to DNA mutations. DNA codes for proteins, so a change in DNA will alter the corresponding protein and lead to bacterial variation. Some bacteria express enzymes that can destroy drugs or cell-wall proteins that do not bind to drugs. When an antibiotic is added to the environment, the resistant bacteria are “selected”; that is, they are more likely to survive. As these bacteria multiply over time, they can exchange their resistance genes with other bacteria. An entire population can evolve drug resistance according to the laws of natural selection and evolution. “Superbug” infections will only become more common and lethal as we continue to abuse antibiotics.

An artist’s depiction of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA. (Source: European Commission)

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