Researchers are tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance head on — by hunting for the genes that enable bacteria to become resistant to life-saving medications.
July 6, 2017 — From the muddy bottoms of deep ocean trenches to Komodo dragon blood, scientists have scoured Earth’s remote corners in search of molecules that could yield the world’s next antibiotic. They hope to discover powerful new medicines against which bacteria have not yet evolved defenses. It’s a high-stakes pursuit. Disease-causing bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics more quickly than we’re discovering new ones.
That’s a big problem for humans. Infections that throughout the 20th century became easy to treat because of antibiotics have today become deadly. In the United States alone, more than 2 million people each year are infected with bacteria that can’t be killed by the drugs that were meant to stop them. At least 23,000 of those people will die as a result of their infections.
“[I]n the antibiotic ‘arms race’ against bacteria, humanity is rarely ahead,” wrote a team of researchers headed by microbiologist Gautam Dantas in a recent review article. Dantas, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is trying to change that.
We can no longer outrun antibiotic resistance by simply mining nature for new compounds, Dantas explains. He and others now are tackling the problem head on — by hunting for the genes that enable bacteria to become resistant to life-saving medications. Finding and decoding these genes may provide fresh clues about how antibiotic resistance emerges — and how to shut it down.
Unearthing the antibiotic resistome
Antibiotics are chemical substances that kill or slow the growth of bacteria. They are often thought of in terms of their medicinal properties that stop infections in humans, but many bacteria in the environment naturally produce chemicals with antibiotic properties, too.