Antibiotics have saved countless lives since they were first introduced to the world in the late 1940s. But the overuse of these 'wonder drugs' has led to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which pose a serious global threat to the treatment of infectious diseases.
While it's generally believed that bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance in the clinic, recent research from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and the University of Akron in Ohio suggests antibiotic resistance has a long history.
In findings published last week in the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers report the discovery of a remarkable prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isolated from Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, one of the world's largest caves.They have been isolated for more than four million years so have never had contact with humans.
They found that while the bacteria are incapable of causing human disease and have not been exposed to human sources of antibiotics, almost all were resistant to at least one antibiotic - and some resisted as many as 14.
For instance, the researchers were able to identify a type of resistance that has yet to emerge in the clinic in a group of bacteria distantly related to the bacterium that causes anthrax. 'It suggests that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections,' says Gerry Wright, one of the researchers.
His colleague Hazel Barton adds: 'We can say to doctors: 'While this isn't a problem right now, it could be in the future, so you need to be aware of this pre-existing resistance and be prepared if it emerges in the clinic, or you are going to have a problem'.'
Test yourself on your knowledge of antibiotics here.
1. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1928. What was the antibiotic named?
2. Antibiotics kill not only bad bacteria that cause illness, but also good bacteria that inhabit the body.
3. Which of these illnesses should be treated with antibiotics?
a. Runny nose
b. Cold and flu
c. Strep throat
4. One can prevent getting antibiotic-resistant infections by:
a. Not saving an antibiotic for the next bout of illness
b. Not taking an antibiotic prescribed for someone else
c. Taking antibiotics as prescribed
Answers: 1. b; 2. a; 3. c (antibiotics cure bacterial, not viral, infections); 4. all are correct