New E. coli strain resistant to all known antibiotics

E. coli
CC BY 2.0 E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. (Photo: USDA)

The bacteria are winning.

I’ve longed joked that the bacteria shall inherit the Earth. They may be little, they may not have brains, but they’ve got moxie. While bacteria are everywhere and essential to the mechanics of how this whole shebang of an ecosystem functions, the ones that cause infection have been vexing living things forever. The discovery and development of antibiotics were great, until we realized that the tiny guys can outsmart them and we’re left with stronger infectious bacteria than before. The more antibiotics we use, the stronger the bacteria get; the modern world is like the army for bugs.

It’s only a matter of time until evolution renders antibiotics ineffective, and the time is now for one particular strain of Escherichia coli. Researchers in China have found a new gene, MCR-1, that makes E. coli immune to colistin (also known as polymyxin). Colistin is the class of antibiotics widely used as a last-resort treatment against multi-drug resistant bacterial infections in humans, according to Discover Magazine, and one of the few antibiotics effective against E. Coli.

The new E. Coli was first detected in Chinese livestock and then found in humans. Now the stubborn strain has turned up in German poultry and a man in Denmark.

And to make it all the more troubling, the resistant gene is spreading by a process in which the bacteria share genetic material with each other rather than the traditional process of passing it to the next generation. Which is to say, it transfers through a group very quickly.

Antibiotic resistance is becoming increasingly problematic as we are running out of new forms of antibiotics to develop. And the livestock industry is exacerbating the problem as their profligate use of antibiotics, like colistin, to deter disease and promote growth has given a huge helping hand to new forms of resistance. "The rapid growth of livestock production in China has been of particular concern,” notes Discover, “as the government there imposes few limitations on the use of antibiotics.”

As the World Health Organization warns of a return to the pre-antibiotic era, where infections that are now treatable turn fatal once again, it seems prudent to start giving these organisms the respect they warrant.

I like how Discover ends their article: "Unstoppable diseases have all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster, but they may soon become all too real."

Tags: Agriculture | Antibiotics | Bacteria | Diseases

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