Peer into the Post-Apocalyptic Future of Antimicrobial Resistance

Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker | Wired | March 18, 2017

Aout 4 million years ago, a cave was forming in the Delaware Basin of what is now Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. From that time on, Lechuguilla Cave remained untouched by humans or animals until its discovery in 1986—an isolated, pristine primeval ecosystem. When the bacteria found on the walls of Lechuguilla were analyzed, many of the microbes were determined not only to have resistance to natural antibiotics like penicillin, but also to synthetic antibiotics that did not exist on earth until the second half of the twentieth century. As infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg put it in the New England Journal of Medicine, “These results underscore a critical reality: antibiotic resistance already exists, widely disseminated in nature, to drugs we have not yet invented.”

The origin story of antibiotics is well known, almost mythic, and antibiotics, along with the other basic public health measures, have had a dramatic impact on the quality and longevity of our modern life. When ordinary people called penicillin and sulfa drugs miraculous, they were not exaggerating. These discoveries ushered in the age of antibiotics, and medical science assumed a lifesaving capability previously unknown.

Note that we use the word discoveries rather than inventions. Antibiotics were around many millions of years before we were. Since the beginning of time, microbes have been competing with other microbes for nutrients and a place to call home. Under this evolutionary stress, beneficial mutations occurred in the “lucky” and successful ones that resulted in the production of chemicals—antibiotics—to inhibit other species of microbes from thriving and reproducing, while not compromising their own survival. Antibiotics are, in fact, a natural resource—or perhaps more accurately, a natural phenomenon—that can be cherished or squandered like any other gift of nature, such as clean and adequate supplies of water and clean air...