Until the 1940s, one in every twenty children died before completing their first year of life. There was no effective treatment for tuberculosis and pneumonia, and a slight wound might lead to a gangrenous injury, and subsequently amputation. Antibiotics prevent the bacteria from dividing, slowing or eliminating them, which helps our immune cells get rid of the infection.
They eliminate deadly diseases, allow us to open the body during surgeries, and prevent cancer patients from infection. They enable us to raise animals and fish on an industrial scale, and their presence in cleaning products stops the spread of disease. But bacteria are fighting back. In 2016, 700,000 people died as a result of antibiotic-resistant infection, and by 2050, ten million people a year could be at risk. Like us, each individual bacterium differs slightly from others, so when a colony of bacteria encounters antibiotics, it complies with Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” saying. Some members of the colony do better than others, so they live longer and pass on their genes. This makes the next generation a little better in terms of resisting the effects of drugs.
The next generation also accumulates random mutations, which makes each one slightly different. Some of them become better in antibiotic resistance and the cycle recurs. These small improvements begin to accumulate, and we end up with bacteria that we cannot kill. We are in an arms race with those microorganisms whose molecules develop and disrupt antibiotics, disrupt them, or even flush them out of their cells. Moreover, thanks to diffraction in bacterial biology, when one species develops a method for drug resistance, it can donate its genetic code to another species and then transmit resistance. If our medications stop working, the treatable infection may become fatal again, the risk of infection may increase after surgery, and industrial implants may become impossible. We are in a race against time to find new ways to overcome it, a race that we cannot afford to lose.