Field of Science

Won't use the E-word

The Sunday Chicago Tribune had a major article on antibiotic resistant bacteria and lack of incentives to seek new antibiotics. They quoted several experts and kept using phrases like "bacteria develop resistance", then it dawns on you, the one word to describe the whole thing is not being used; evolution. Bacteria develop resistance is a very misleading phrase. A very small number of bacteria out there in the bacterial universe will have some genetic difference that provides them with resistance to a particular antibiotic substance. But it matters not, and these bacteria may not even be as vigorous as those without the resistant genotype. This all changes when a population of bacteria encounters an antibiotic which exerts very strong selection in favor of any bacterium with genetic resistance because it kills all the rest. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming more common because of the use and misuse of antibiotics. The more we use them, the more resistant strains are selected for. When first discovered antibiotics were treated as a magic bullet against infections, and at first they sure seemed that way. But physicians don't study evolution, and many don't even think it's a valid theory so deficient is their biological background, and this lack of understanding created the problem. People even demand antibiotics to treat viral diseases when they only work on bacteria, thus demonstrating a double dumbness. So now humans are in an evolutionary arms race with bacteria. Have no doubts about who will win; the odds greatly favor the bacteria. Here is a case where the biology behind the story is simply lacking, and we're left wondering if it's because the "experts" and/or the journalist just don't get the concept, or if the newspaper is just afraid to use the e-word for fear of offending the biologically ignorant. Those of us who are experts at explaining biology would surely explain it differently.


mr_subjunctive said...

$50 says the reporter (or his/r editor, or his/r publisher) is afraid to use the word for fear of offending the ignorant. Telling incomplete or misleading stories for fear of blowback from the misinformed seems to be all the media does anymore.

Not that I'm bitter.

Pat said...

We force the bacteria to use resistance, more like breeding sheep than evolution. Except selecting for shearing-resistant, carnivorous, intelligent sheep. I remember scientists warning about this over thirty years ago and pleading for the banning of antibiotics in animal feed, reduction of prescriptions for virus infections, etc. That was before doom merchant became a popular profession.

Luckily the middle ear infection I had that spread as far as my throat responded to penicillin before I went the way of Oscar Wilde.

I am bitter. I had a job doing scientific articles in a mag before they decided to go the advertainment route. They really thought they didn't need a fact-checker (or spell-checker) for the technical articles supplied by some random bod at the company that was paying for the advert on the facing page. Of course, 99% of the readers would not know they were mistakes as they were reading the mag to learn things.

Want to be really depressed? Even the BBC is dumbing down.

At least you and mr subjunctive can keep your heads held high for your quality.

The Phytophactor said...

Sorry to hear about the job situation Pat; it is always disheartening to learn how little our employers value quality.
Also sorry to disagree about your first statement. "We force the bacteria to use resistance, more like breeding sheep than evolution."
Antibiotics are the selecting agent and the result is a non-random reproduction: death for non-resistant bacteria, and lots of progeny for any resistant variants. Breeding sheep or yappy little frou-frou dogs is the same thing except the selection is conscious.