How did the combination of human medical advances and basic evolutionary principles lead to the problem of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If one accepts the premise that evolution exists as a scientific fact, then understanding the development of microorganisms or bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics is elementary.

Just as many species – too numerous to name – evolved over time, so too have microorganisms.  And, just as other species, especially homo sapiens, evolved over thousands of years in order to better adapt to their environment, so too have microorganisms.   The development of antibiotics is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In fact, while the Earth is populated by species the evolution or existence of which can be traced back thousands or hundreds of thousands of years,  antibiotics have really only been around since the 1940s with discovery of penicillin.  As the development of antibiotics proliferated, and as the danger of bacterial infections became more and more understood, prescriptions for antibiotics for all manner of infection became a matter of routine.  In addition, the development of antibacterial soaps, a staple of many homes these days, represented a grave threat to the survival of microorganisms that had been around for many years. 

With what increasing numbers of bacteriologists suggest has been a massive overuse of antibiotics, compounded by the widespread use of antibacterial soaps, endangered bacteria basically decided to fight back.  Fighting for their survival, microorganisms began to evolve into more sophisticated strains resistant to antibiotics.  The resulting evolutionary development has posed a very serious threat to the human species, especially to those with weakened immune systems or those susceptible to post-operative infections like staph.  The list of bacteria that have evolved into more antibiotic-resistant strains is long and frightening, including, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, anthrax, gonorrhea, streptococcus (a serious threat newborn babies), forms of pneumonia, forms of meningitis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and more.

In all of these cases, bacteria evolved in order to survive the antibiotics that had been developed to kill them.  Because it made sense, in most cases, for physicians to prescribe common antibiotics for “routine” bacterial infections, the answer to the problem of evolutionary transformations in bacteria is extraordinarily complicated.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration described its efforts at addressing the problem as involving “two parallel tracks:

n  Efforts to reduce drug-resistant bacteria in foods and in animals that enter the food supply, and

n  Facilitating the development of new antibiotics to treat patients while preserving the effectiveness of existing antibiotics.” []

In other words, there is no good strategy for resolving the conflict between humans and bacteria.  The steps laid out by FDA are basically what one would expect, but that is precisely the problem:  there is no sense of fundamentally addressing the underlying problem of the systemic over-prescribing of antibiotics and for the saturation of the market with antibacterial soaps that bacteriologists say are unnecessary for human hygiene and that contribute to the problem of the development antibiotic-resistant microorganisms.

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