Hero Bugs: Why Medicine is Digging for Bacteria


Bacteria can be the root of many disease and illnesses, causing the world of medicine to constantly search for the next most efficient vaccine or cure. Although these microscopic organisms don’t have a brain, they’re actually pretty smart.

Some possess the ability to produce, break down and change, or digest almost whatever compound they want, even if they’ve never encountered it before. Such is the case with many of today’s so-called “superbugs” or bacteria which most, if not every known antibiotic is useless in fighting against.

In a microcosmic display of evolution, we’ve inadvertently bred stronger diseases by way of avoiding the population’s ability to beat illnesses via the body’s nature defenses. Of course, it’s obvious why we use antibiotics – they’ve saved an estimate of 200 million lives.

Although to take full responsibility for the development of superbugs would be a little arrogant of us humans – recent discoveries have us rethinking where these bacteria come from and how they relate to the ecosystem.

hero bugs

Carlsbad Caverns where the recent ‘hero bug’ was found.

Hero Bugs to the Rescue!

Now, scientists have found a new superbug hidden 1,000 feet underground inside New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave – the deepest cavern system in the continental U.S. As it turns out, the bacterium is resistant to 70 of existing antibiotics and can totally inactive most of them. The wild part is that this organism has been isolated from all people, society, and drugs for nearly 4 million years.

Although this might seem like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie, many are hailing the bacteria as hero bugs. Hazel Barton, a microbiologist at the University of Akron helped to find the bacteria and is excited about the opportunities such a discovery presents to the development of future antibiotics.

It’s known as Paenibacillus, and luckily the bacterium isn’t pathogenic so don’t worry about a “cave-flu” epidemic. By studying the genome of this organism and how it evades many antibiotics, it may allow researchers to get ahead of many dangerous superbugs. The video below demonstrates just how quickly bacteria can adapt to their environment:

Back in 2012, Barton and her team of researchers discovered a range of microbes and other hero bugs that were resistant to every natural antibiotic used in hospitals. Since then, the model of how we have come to deal with resilient bacteria has rapidly changed. However, a caveat to these bacteria being “hardwired” against antibiotics is that it’s only true for those derived from other microorganisms like fungi and other known bacteria.

The pursuit to develop better antibiotics is almost never ending, although finding more hero bugs may be the key. With the rise of new technologies like CRISPR gene editing and more accurately targeted drugs, it’s these ancient bacteria which may actually come to the rescue.

Author: Connor Smith

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