• Question: What would scientists do if all bacteria grew resistant to antibiotics? Do we have a backup?

    Asked by galaxia on 27 Apr 2020. This question was also asked by jellyfish12.
    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 27 Apr 2020: last edited 27 Apr 2020 3:03 pm


      This is, to my mind, one of the most important issues that faces humans. In short – we currently do not have a good backup; if all bacteria became resistant overnight, I believe it is likely we’d face a serious global pandemic worse than the one we are currently experiencing.
      Our current strategies to develop new antibiotics by considering new molecules found in nature, designing new molecules that specifically target bacterial cell processes and use artificial evolution to evolve new molecules that can produce antibiotic effects. This way, we may be able to find new types of antibiotic which act in new ways and may be slower to develop resistance.
      Of great importance is also how doctors use our existing antibiotics. It is very important that antibiotics are not overused in order to reduce the spread of resistance. This is a very challenging question in scientific policy and advice that needs to be continually talked about.
      Finally, I’ll leave you with this very cool video which shows how quickly antibiotic resistance can be developed and spread … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mUqbToqAM0
      Like I say – it’s a huge challenge facing scientists of today and the future ~

    • Photo: Melanie Krause

      Melanie Krause answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      That is a really good question!
      Kim Liu has already given a great answer! What I’d like to add is that the majority of antibiotics is actually used in our animal farming industry. If you have lets say 10.000 chicken in one small space you need to prevent them from getting sick because the infection would spread so quickly that most or all chicken would die. So to avoid that chicken (or pig/cow) farmers often use a lot of antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick. These can still be found in the meat we buy at the supermarket. And with constant intake of antibiotics chances of resistant bacteria developing are growing.. there are a few ’emergency antibiotics’ that are not allowed for use in animals and that are kept to only be used if all products we have fail.
      But we definitely need more of them.. a lot of researchers are working on new methods to find them but its not an easy task.

    • Photo: Mery Shahin

      Mery Shahin answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      Antibiotics treat infections by killing the bacteria but another possible method of treating infections is inhibiting the ability of bacteria to cause diseases. Bacteria use multiple tools that help them survive, replicate in the body and hide from the immune system. One of those tools is type IV pili, which is what I am studying. We think that by studying and understanding how these tools work we can develop drugs that stop them from functioning properly and thus, prevent bacteria from causing diseases without killing them.

    • Photo: Gabriela da Silva Xavier

      Gabriela da Silva Xavier answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      We would probably be finding new antibiotics or other means to fight infection. Problem solving often requires being able to approach the problem from different angles, and is a good skill to have for a scientist.

    • Photo: Donna MacCallum

      Donna MacCallum answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      We do have a back-up… bacteriophage (viruses that attack bacteria) can be used to treat bacterial infection. In fact, these were being investigated at the same time as antibiotics were being discovered. They’re now being investigated again.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      That would be very worrying! There is a lot of effort from government, scientists, and healthcare professionals (in both human and veterinary sectors) to tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). We don’t have any solid backups at the moment and discovering/engineering new antibiotics is a slow process – we can easily lose the ‘arms race’ with the microbes. For now, we need to be very careful about how we use antibiotics – ensure that only the appropriate amount is used and under the right circumstances. For the long-term, we really need to be thinking ‘outside the box’ and find ways of managing/treating microbe-related disease without using ‘antibiotics’ in the conventional sense. The UK Government website has some pretty good resources on this topic:
      https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/antimicrobial-resistance-amr-information-and-resources
      AMR is a very active area of research – we definitely need more scientists working on this – perhaps you could find the answer for us some day?

    • Photo: Robert Ives

      Robert Ives answered on 29 Apr 2020:


      There hasn’t been a successful new class of antibiotics discovered for almost 60 years now and healthcare systems around the World are growing more and more concerned about what could happen if too many of the bacteria resistant to these antibiotics become common in humans. There is at least one new class of antibiotic in lase phase clinical trials to which bacteria haven’t yet developed resistance too, so hopefully there might be something soon. Any new antibiotic class would be so important that it would only ever be used on a patient when all other antibiotics had already been tried and failed. By doing this, it should reduce the opportunities for bacteria to become resistant and extend the amount of time the antibiotic can be used for.

      It is so important that we all work together to try and discover these new antibiotics. Apparently there are even special ‘home kits’ where people can gather soil from their gardens, run some simple tests and send samples to labs to help in the discovery process! Interesting stuff!

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