The Battle against Antibiotic Resistance

Science is fighting a battle against antibiotic resistance — and losing because of how quickly microbes evolve. A big part of the problem is that we humans are the major selective force driving the evolution of antibiotic resistance in those critters that infect us. Every time scientists throw a new antibiotic at a microbe, they end up selecting for more resistant microbes. Science needs to change its strategy, and evolutionary biology can help:

1 Making new drugs: If researchers understand exactly how the bacteria evolve resistance, they may be able to design better drugs.

1 Testing and refining theories about what happens if humans use antibiotics less: The science of evolutionary biology, complete with all the beautiful experiments outlined in later sections of this chapter, is how scientists generate and modify their expectations. Unfortunately, much of what they learn from these experiments is bleak, but at least they learn something, and what they learn is important to understanding how microbial populations respond to changes in the way humans use antibiotics.

1 Not screwing up the drugs we already have: By being careful about how and when we use antibiotic medications, humans can slow the development of antibiotic resistance.

New and improved! Making new drugs

By understanding the mechanisms that make a particular microorganism antibiotic resistant, scientists can tailor new antibiotics to undermine that mechanism. If a bacterium is antibiotic resistant because it can pump antibiotics out of its cell, doctors can change the way the antibiotic is administered: Instead of giving the antibiotic alone, they can give it along with a second compound that disrupts each bacterium's pumping ability. Voilà — an effective solution. Similarly, by understanding exactly how bacterial enzymes destroy an antibiotic, scientists can design new, slightly different antibiotics that aren't as readily degraded.

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