Antibiotic Resistance Simplified
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Antibiotic Resistance Simplified

A current topic being discussed in the scientific, medical, and public sector is the issue of antibiotic resistance. Microorganisms possess resistance to antibiotics in the form of DNA on genes that get passed between cells, and to their offspring. Antibiotic resistance has been present since the first implementation of antibiotics, and continues to be a problem.
           Antibiotic resistance in bacteria and pathogens has become an increasingly present topic in scientific journals, as well as in the public media. Humans are becoming aware of the extent to which bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotics and the threats this resistance poses. The reality is that antibiotic resistance has been occurring since the discovery and application of the very first antibiotics. The first documented cases of antibiotic resistance were in the 1930’s to sulfonamide antibiotics.  Since the first cases were noticed, antibiotic resistance has become a serious issue in the medical field, and scientific community.

            While the term ‘antibiotic resistance’ may strike fear into the hearts of many, it simply implies that bacteria, or microorganisms, are capable of surviving an exposure to an antibiotic, or drug. The ability of bacteria to survive, or “resist,” exposure to drugs would suggest that at one time the bacteria would not have survived and would have previously been killed after an exposure to the antibiotic or drug, and this is the case. The ability to survive an exposure to antibiotics is gained by acquiring genes that provide this protection.

It is important to mention that resistance to antibiotics is not a broad spectrum resistance to any and all antibiotic. The ability to survive exposure to antibiotics is conferred on genes, which contain genetic material that provide the microorganism some defense to the antibiotic. There is not simply one resistance gene that provides resistance to all antibiotics. There are many genes for resistance that confer resistance to specific antibiotics. Some bacteria are only resistant to one or two antibiotics meaning they only carry genes providing resistance to those specific antibiotics. Other bacteria are resistant to many antibiotics, making them problematic to treat when they infect people.  Microorganisms that are resistant to wide array of antibiotics carry many genes providing resistance against many antibiotics.

            The genes that confer this resistance are often found on segments of DNA called plasmids, which are basically just small rings of DNA that remain separate from the bacterial chromosome. These plasmids are passed to offspring of the bacterial cell as well as between other bacterial cells. The resistance genes can be passed from cell to cell through a process called “horizontal gene transfer,” which allows genetic material to be passed between individual bacteria that are not parent-offspring. This means the genes for antibiotic resistance can be rapidly spread through a population of bacteria. This process is exacerbated in the presence of an antibiotic because all the non resistant bacteria that would otherwise be taking up resources and space are being killed off.

             As microorganisms gain these plasmids containing resistance genes to antibiotics they also pass them to their offspring, creating new generations of resistant bacteria. The bacterial cells continue to exchange DNA plasmids, which leads to some bacteria accumulating many of the genes that give them resistance against many different antibiotics. In a way, antibiotic resistance is a cumulative process; bacteria acquire more resistance genes, which provide resistance to more antibiotics. New antibiotics have to be developed to kill microorganisms that have developed resistance to most other available antibiotics. Since the 1930’s there has been documentation of antibiotic resistance to nearly every antibiotic that has been created. Some antibiotics became useless within several years of their introduction. The resolution to this endless cycle has yet to be uncovered.

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Comments (1)

A perfect example of evolution at work.