Did you know that your average life expectancy in the 1920s would have only been age 47? That jumped to 78 after Penicillin was created in 1928, helping us gain about 30 years of life! Unfortunately, no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987 and antibiotic resistance is now reaching crisis stage. But there’s hope. Scientists around the world are realizing the next answer may be living all around (and on) us! 1 2
Perhaps you’ve heard that the antibiotics we have right now will only be useful for a little while longer. The deadly bacteria they’re meant to protect us against are evolving into stronger bugs, able to work around our medicines. They are figuring out our tricks but thankfully, we still have the bacteriophage on our side!
Have you heard of this wonder?
These viruses (yes, viruses) pack a brutal punch when they interact with certain bacteria—killing them with an explosion from the inside or hijacking their DNA. But they don’t hurt us! So we’re taking a look at how scientists are finding ways to harness the power of bacteriophages and make them available for everyone around the world.
Antibiotic resistance is a very real, very immediate threat that every single one of us is facing. It could start with a scratch and putting on a sweaty ski boot, or could come down to one unfortunate breath you take in an elevator after an infected person is long gone.
Bacteria cover every inch of this planet and float in the air around us; finding ways to thrive in every environment they’re in. You don’t notice them until something’s wrong, but there are at least a hundred trillion bacteria living their best lives in and on you right now! (Really.)
What we are up against is something that was one of the first forms of life on earth; so hardy and resilient that they could survive more than 3 billion years. 3 They’ve seen some things. And their lifecycles are so quick and reproduction so wild that they’re able to evolve quickly and adapt to changes. 4 Resistance has been inevitable.
So, it’s going to take a little trial and error on our part to get to a point in human history where bacteria aren’t a threat to us. Which could be okay if we soak in some valuable lessons about problem-solving in the future. Here’s a big one that is cause for the sense of celebration in this article: We’ve learned that we can always turn to nature for solutions. In this case, we know that every organism on the planet, even bacteria, have a natural born enemy. And we can use that simple notion to figure out who could be our ally.
Now, let’s meet the virus that could give us all a hand.
Please welcome to the stage, Bacteriophage! (Phage for short.)
Known as the deadliest being on the planet, phages are parasites for bacteria. They’ll either kill them or take over their DNA all in the name of reproduction. We’ll get into all of the specific details of this extremely cool organism more after our first video. I think I’d like for us to get to learning about the solution to our looming and deadly problem first.
So without further ado, this video from Motherboard gives us the scoop on how scientists are going about devising ways to make it so we can all have a defense against deadly bacteria, and how phage therapy has been used (and very successful) already in medicine!
Brilliant right? Fingers crossed we hear more about their success in the future!
If you’d like to see more from Motherboard, make sure you head over to their entire YouTube library! They head around the world to bring us the best stories in science and technology that point to the possibilities in our futures. Give them a follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up to date with their work!
Okay okay, so how do these tiny killing machines work?
And how can we trust a virus not to hurt us?
These are some of the craziest organisms I’ve ever learned about. Hands down. I’d say their only competition is the tardigrade but those cuddly water bears are no match to these mechanic looking parasitic viruses that cover every inch of the planet.
To give us the rundown on who these cool bacteria killing friends are, we turn to Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. They do an absolutely brilliant job of showing us how phages specialize themselves to target only specific bacteria, how those processes work, and how they aren’t a threat to us at all.
Aren’t they cool! I can’t believe I didn’t know about them until about a month ago.
If you’re interested in seeing more great content from Kurzgesagt, make sure you check out their entire YouTube channel and give them a follow on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date with their content. Even better, give them a follow (or a few dollars) over on Patreon and support their work! They make one, super well-done video every month that explains the world to us in terms we can all understand, and with cute animations to boot. They’re such a gem on the internet.
We live with bacteriophage every single day! This seems like yet another win-win partnership for us and the rest of the natural world. Bacteriophage get to do what they want to do (reproduce inside of and kill their very specific taste in bacteria) and we get to live.
Yet, these organisms are smart too.
It would be wise for us to take note of a second lesson for future problem-solving from our experience with antibiotics: Do not abuse whatever partnership we devise with the deadliest organism on earth. We don’t want bacteria to adapt to them as well.
But that’s why we might do well to pay attention to our history books, isn’t it? To take note, learn from, and build upon what people have done in the past. When we fail, it only motivates us to find progress.
And really, if we have the option to begin building a lovely symbiotic relationship with this virus, it seems like we should really consider it.
Stay open to new possibilities!
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” —Albert Einstein
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- Adedeji, W A. “THE TREASURE CALLED ANTIBIOTICS” Annals of Ibadan postgraduate medicine vol. 14,2 (2016): 56-57. ↩
- Jinks, Tim. “Why Is It so Difficult to Discover New Antibiotics?” BBC News, BBC, 27 Oct. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/health-41693229. Accessed 22 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “History of Life on Earth | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.” History of Life on Earth | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/life-science/early-life-earth-animal-origins. Accessed 22 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “About Microbiology – Bacteria.” Microbiology Online, microbiologyonline.org/index.php/about-microbiology/introducing-microbes/bacteria. Accessed 22 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “The Virus That Kills Drug-Resistant Superbugs.” YouTube, Motherboard, 7 Dec. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVTOr7Nq2SM&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 18 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “The Deadliest Being on Planet Earth – The Bacteriophage.” YouTube, Kurzgesagt, 13 May 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YI3tsmFsrOg&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 18 Mar. 2019. ↩