Bacteria are amongst the oldest living things in this planet. They are the smallest thing we consider to be life and can be found everywhere. Most bacteria are actually harmless. Your body hosts trillions of bacteria that help you to survive. However, some bacteria can invade your body, spread quickly and cause diseases that can sometimes kill you. Millions of people died due to the effect of harmful bacteria until we developed antibiotics. This revolutionised medicine and saved millions of lives.
Antibiotics are able to kill the majority of susceptible bacteria fairly quickly, leaving only a small group of surviving bacteria that our body's immune system is able to deal with easily. Antibiotics can do this in different ways. Some interfere with the bacteria’s processes, for example, by interfering with its metabolism, significantly slowing down their growth. Others prevent the bacteria from replicating its DNA which stops it from multiplying and therefore ultimately kills them.
However, by pure random chance, a small minority of harmful bacteria have evolved a way to protect themselves from antibiotics. This could be by intercepting the antibiotic molecules and changing them so that they become harmless, or by rapidly pumping the antibiotic out before it can damage the bacteria. These handful of bacteria will survive and multiply, replacing all the susceptible bacteria that were killed off.
Moreover, these antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria can spread their immunity to other bacteria. This is because bacteria contain two kinds of DNA: chromosomes and free floating parts called plasmids. Bacteria can transfer these plasmids to other bacteria through cell-to- cell contact. This is known as bacterial conjugation. By doing this, the genetic material that gives the bacteria its immunity can spread quickly through a population. Bacteria can also harvest dead bacteria and collect DNA pieces in a process known as transformation. This process even works between different bacterial species and allows for the creation of superbugs – bacteria that are immune to multiple antibiotics.
This spread of immunity is largely caused by the overuse of antibiotics by people. The more we use antibiotics, the greater the chance bacteria will become resistant to them and they can no longer be used to treat infections. Antibiotics should be a last resort drug, but instead many people take them because they have a cold or some other simple infection. Often these infections are viral infections which will go away by themselves. On average, a common cold lasts 1 weeks, a sore throat lasts 1 week, an ear infection lasts 4 days and a cough or bronchitis lasts 3 weeks. However, many people take antibiotics as soon as they see any symptoms. Many of these are usually caused by viruses. Antibiotics cannot affect viruses so they are actually useless against these diseases. Instead the antibiotics attack harmless bacteria in your body which develop resistance. This immunity can then spread to other harmful bacteria.
The development of antibiotic resistant bacteria causes many problems. Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria increase levels of disease and death, as well as the length of time people stay in hospitals. Furthermore, few new antibiotics are being developed. As resistance in bacteria grows, it will become more difficult to treat serious infections. Another serious problem with antibiotic use is in meat production. At any particular point in time humanity holds between 20 and 30 billion animals as livestock. To make meat cheaper, many animals are held in very tight spaces, and in unhygienic conditions. These poor conditions are perfect for harmful bacteria to spread and infect the animals. Therefore, many animals are given antibiotics to kill as many bacteria as possible and prevent the animals from getting infected. Unsurprisingly, this system has created more and more bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is a real problem and is making it much more difficult to treat bacterial diseases. If this continues, more and more bacteria will become resistant to antibiotics and more superbugs could develop. However, this can still be prevented. If we stop overusing antibiotics and taking them in unneeded circumstances, we can reduce the increase of antibiotic resistant bacteria and maybe even stop it altogether. So take care, not antibiotics.
By Vishal Aksaj Rajan Thirupathirajan 10S