Antibiotic resistance is not a new problem. Almroth Wright and Alexander Fleming predicted penicillin resistance almost as soon as it was discovered. But we like to think that the modern scourge of dangerously resistant bacteria is a problem of not enough drug options, and misuse of the ones we have.
Turns out that nature’s way ahead of us. A team exploring Carlsbad’s Lechuguilla Cave, a 122-mile expanse of acidic pools and metallic outcroppings, isolated 93 bacteria that had evolved in the cave over millions of years. These bacteria, a handful of what likely lives in the cave, have never met our antibiotic drugs.
Yet they turned out to be resistant to nearly all of them, and some in ways we’ve never seen before. Why?
Antibiotics like penicillin, or tetracycline, or even daptomycin (one of our toughest weapons) come from natural sources. They were used by microbes to kill each other long before we stole their chemicals for our own use. So it’s no surprise that millions of years of evolution has created pathways of resistance to these weapons.
Dig into soil, rock or other bacterial habitats, and you’ll be looking at a war that’s been waged for millions of years, with weapons we have yet to describe. And nature has built up defenses of equal strength.
From enzymes that eat plastic or chew up cellulose to make ethanol to pathways that digest even our toughest antibiotics, microbial biology is a vast ocean of exotic chemistry. It’s time for a change of attitude for fighting bugs. No matter how powerful the chemical we take from nature, chances are that she’s already figured out a way to kill it with fire. It’s time to assume that all antibiotics are already beaten, and use them accordingly.
Want some advice? Wash your hands. Soap still works, at least until we explore the next cave.