Friday, 2 February 2007

Superbugs: A Battle of Wits

We as humans like to think we're pretty much at the top of the evolutionary tree. We have our enormous brains cased up in the sleekest bodies this side of those cats with no hair. And we made those cats ourselves; through literally years of forced breeding we created a cat breed in our own grossly hairless image. Truly, we are princes among the paupers represented by the lesser species. We even invented (read: stole from fungi) a substance to destroy all bacteria, intelligent life's implacable foe. The only problem is that the more we use it, the better the bacteria become at not being sporting enough to be killed by it. Bacteria, you see, have the advantage of evolving horrifically quickly. Killing them is like punching smoke. As soon as we come up with a new antibiotic, they're already evolving their way around it. It is apparent that a new approach is needed.
Bacteria, worryingly, can communicate. Like tiny little board members, bacteria will not attack a target unless they have a quorum. This allows them to be fairly confident that they have the strength to prevail in the upcoming conflict. Although the idea of bacteria chatting away is profoundly disturbing, it may just provide a new method for producing resistance resisting antibiotics. The signals are conveyed between bacteria via chemicals, and scientists are working on ways to break down these chemicals before they reach other bacteria. The idea is that each bacteria will think it's on its own, and therefore not attack the host. It is gratifying to know that humans, the nominal peak of 3 billion years of evolution, could be on the brink of outsmarting our most distant, unicellular cousins.
Source: AP

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