Are Humans Smarter Than Microbes? It’s a Tie

By Shlomo Maital    


At the moment, human beings, with their huge brains (average weight, 1.5 kgs., or 3.3 pounds, only 2 per cent of our body weight)   seem to be losing the battle against microbes.

   We use antibiotics to battle microbic infections. But the microbes have developed resistance, and many of them are resistant to common antibiotics. We continue to develop new antibiotics, but there are now microbes that cannot be killed by ANY antibiotics now known to man.   This is a natural evolutionary process, and it is exacerbated by the widespread overuse of antibiotics, helped by doctors who overprescribe them and by patients who demand them (even for illnesses like flu that are not affected by antibiotics, because they do not kill viruses). Drug-resistance bacteria infect 2 million people yearly in America, and kill 23,000!

   Writing in The New York Times, Denise Grady reports on a promising new breakthrough that may at least give us human beings a tie in the battle with microbes. A new method extracts antibiotics from bacteria that live in dirt. It was reported in the leading journal Nature last Wednesday. The new drug is called teixobactin. Tested on mice, it easily cured infections.

   Best of all, it is very unlikely that bacteria will develop resistance to this new antibiotic.   The discovery was reported by Kim Lewis, director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Boston’s Northeastern University.

   Basically, here is the new method: The earth teems with microbes, and they would dominate us were it not for antibiotics that microbes secrete to defeat rivals. Scientists “mine” soil samples for antibiotics. But they are limited. 90% of microbial species cannot be cultured in the laboratory. Kim Lewis and his team found a way. Basically, they put bacteria into a soil box, in a lab, with the same kind of soil from which the bacteria originated. As the bacteria multiply, they can be mined for their antibiotics.   The bacteria are ‘tricked’ into thinking that they are on their home ground – not in the lab where scientists are seeking ways to conquer them.  Because the ‘antibiotics’ secreted by bacteria have been around for so long, they seemed to have strong evolutionary survival power, because they enable the bacteria secreting them to survive against competitors. 

       There are some 25 new compounds that show promise as antibiotics, developed in this way.

       Will this help us humans to at least win a tie with the microbes? Don’t underestimate Nature. The power of evolution, especially when it is rapid (because bacteria multiply quickly, live and die in short cycles) is immense.