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FIGHTING EVOLUTION WITH EVOLUTION: USING BACTERIOPHAGES TO PREVENT ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE.
June 7, 2017
Antibiotic resistance is a serious worldwide public health concern. Wherever antibiotics are applied – hand sanitizers, livestock, pharmaceuticals – the genes encoding for resistance to the antibiotic are selected for within bacterial populations. What’s more, bacteria don’t have to reproduce to share their genes. They have a special method of passing genes across different species by utilizing something called a plasmid. It’s a bit like an envelope full of genes that can be delivered to multiple addresses.
We can’t antibiotic ourselves out of antibiotic resistance because the bacteria simply develop further resistance. However, all bacteria – even antibiotic resistant bacteria – have natural enemies out in the wilderness of the microbiome.
Enter: the bacteriophage, a class of viruses that infect and replicate inside of bacteria. When the baby bacteriophage erupt from the bacteria, the bacteria dies. And if bacteria develop resistance to the bacteriophage, the bacteriophage evolves new methods of attack right alongside the bacteria. In the evolutionary arms race, these natural enemies can keep pace with the ever-changing bacteria. This is something that antibiotics can’t do.
Scientists have long sought the means to harness the bacteriophage and direct it at antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA – using evolution to fight evolution. And a recent study shows proof of concept.
Bacteriophage were able to reduce the growth of multidrug resistant bacteria and reduce the “horizontal transfer” of resistance genes via plasmids. This was true even in the presence of an antibiotic selecting for the multidrug-resistant bacteria to dominate. And the majority of bacteria, whether antibiotic resistant or not, lost their ability to transmit genes via plasmids.
Overall this study suggests that, while we are obligated to maintain the selection for the spread of the drug resistance, the “fight evolution with evolution” approach could help us tip the outcome to our favor.