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A well-worn platitude maintains that the media never reports good news. Sadly, that is true to a degree: good news tends to be incremental and somewhat abstract, whereas our primate brains are hardwired to pay closer attention to scary stuff. All of which is a roundabout way to say that today’s post features tremendously good news! (I guess I’ll leave stupid CNN to fool you into clicking on their overly frightening tomfoolery—and to thereby collect all of the internet’s advertising dollars).

Anyway…on to the good news: researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts have discovered the first major new class of antibiotics in three decades. Effective new medicines are always precious and amazing, but this discovery takes on particular significance due to the fact that rampant overuse of antibiotics has created a legitimately frightening worldwide health crisis. I blogged about this emergency earlier but the basic idea is that we have overprescribed antibiotics, and used them in our crammed factory farms to such an extent that bacteria are evolving wholesale resistance to them. Worst of all, marketers have added some of our most effective antibacterial compounds to ordinary cleaners as a sales gimmick-thereby undermining the utility of these life-saving chemicals.

Chemical Structure of Teixobactin molecule (via "Nature") it is incredible that this was dicovered this month and we already have this!

Chemical Structure of Teixobactin molecule (via “Nature”) it is incredible that we already have this diagram!

The new antibiotic has been christened as Teixobactin. It was discovered in a Gram-negative soil bacterium known as Eleftheria terrae. The bacteria does not grow easily (or at all) in laboratories so it was grown in situ in a new microscopically engineered bacterium culture device—the “ichip.” Teixobactin blocks a particular peptide (a protein-like molecule) which Gram positive bacteria such as Staphylococcus require for building cell walls. In preliminary trials, certain aggressive highly protean pathogens like Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus were unable to develop resistance to Teixobactin.

The ichip in situ!

The ichip in situ!

Hopefully you will have noticed that the new antibiotics were not discovered by Merck or Lily or some other giant conglomerate but instead by a university. Further research reveals that Northeastern was heavily supported by the National Institute of Health and analogous German research agencies (and the University of Bonn). A privately held company founded by the professors who created the ichip will hold patents on any pharmaceutical compounds thereby discovered. It is an interesting amalgamation of public and private (and international) funding and study. It should be of particular interest to obnoxious talking heads and politicos who always advocate pure-market solutions.

Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

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