Sooner or later pretty much everyone is going to have to take a course of antibiotics. Whether it’s a bacterial chest infection, strep throat, or a cut finger that gets out of hand, a bottle of “twice a day, with food, until finished” meds will eventually find its way onto our kitchen counters. Like most of the medicines we take, many of us don’t worry about how they let us reclaim our own bodies, as long as our symptoms get better and stay that way. Unlike many of the medications we take, antibiotics target processes that aren’t controlled by our own bodies, but rather by the chemistry of another life form. Unfortunately for us, these little buggers multiply faster than we do, adapt faster than we do, and have big population numbers on their side. Lets take a look at how antibiotics effect bacterial enzymes, and what the bugs do to bite back.
In humans, enzymes are vital catalysts for much of the chemistry we need to sustain life. This includes breaking down our food, building up new body parts, and keeping everything repaired, supplied with nutrients, and responsive to our environment. The same is true for bacteria. Fortunately for modern medicine, many of the mechanisms and enzymes bacteria use are very different from those in humans. Additionally, there are many things that bacterial cells do, such as building cell walls, that human cells don’t. Many antibiotics work by targeting the enzymes that are different between the bacteria and people. As an example, bacteria need their cell walls to live, so a drug that shuts down an enzyme needed to make the cell wall will kill the bacterium but will not affect human cells that don’t have the same cellular machinery. By picking on enzymes bacteria need that humans don't have, antibiotic drugs are able to kill bacteria, and fight bacterial infections, without causing damage to the human patient.
If antibiotics kill bacteria by shutting down enzymes needed for important chemistry, how can misuse of antibiotics result in resistant strains of bacteria? To understand the answer to this question, we have to understand that bacteria reproduce much, much faster than people do. In fact, some bacteria produce more than one new generation per hour. To reproduce they have to copy their DNA, and sometimes mistakes are made resulting in changes to the DNA sequence. These changes can result in changes in the sequences of proteins within the cell, some of which will be in the enzymes targeted by the drugs. Some of the changes might result in enzymes that don't work and a new bacterium that will die, but the odd bacterium will coincidentally have an enzyme that still works, but is no longer affected by the drug. This can happen if the place the drug binds to the enzyme is disrupted, the enzyme interacts differently with something else in the cell, or even if the enzyme itself is not changed but something else interacts with the drug, stopping it from effecting its original target. Changes can also occur in other enzymes so that they pick up the catalytic slack and the original enzyme isn’t necessary anymore.
Individual DNA mutation events are pretty infrequent and random, so a very very small percentage of the bacterial population will experience a mutation leading to a change in the target of a specific drug. These lucky few, however, will survive when the drug kills all of the bacteria without a lucky mutation. So in a typical infection with many drug-susceptible bacteria and a tiny percentage of drug-resistant bugs, the drug will kill the bacteria that it can, and those resistant to the drug will survive, eventually making up the whole bacterial population in that patient. This means that using antibiotics selectively encourages the growth of resistant bacteria, and every time a single antibiotic is used, resistant strains have an opportunity to become more common.
Antibiotics can help us to get rid of infections by killing off most of the bacteria and giving our immune system a chance to fight off the resistant few. Also, these drugs are often used in combination for tricky infections so that bugs resistant to one drug will probably be killed off by the other. The fact remains, however, that all of the antibiotics currently available are getting less and less effective as more and more resistant strains emerge. In the face of this problem, we all need to be careful about the way that these drugs are used, effectively conserving the resource of antibiotic effectiveness. So the next time you have the option to buy a product with an antibiotic added, consider the old-fashioned version.
Sometimes all you need is soap.