In an age where medical advances save countless lives around the world, it’s perhaps surprising that prehistoric superbugs could pose one of the biggest threats to humankind in years to come.
Commonly thought of as a modern phenomenon, scientists have recently discovered that the antibiotic-resistant superbug in fact dates back hundreds of millions of years to a time before dinosaurs roamed the planet.
But while dinosaurs became extinct long before they could become a danger to humans, antibiotic-resistant enterococci (to give the family of bacteria its medical name) are likely to go from strength to strength in the coming decades – and the consequences are expected to be dire.
A review commissioned by the UK government has predicted that antimicrobial resistance, which currently kills around 700,000 people every year, may lead to a mind-boggling 10 million annual deaths by 2050, at an estimated cost of $100 trillion.
To put that into perspective, in just over 30 years’ time antimicrobial-resistant infections are predicted to kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.
Scientists around the world are undertaking research to design new types of antibiotics and disinfectants to counter the spread of this deadly threat – but the clock is ticking.
The evolution of superbugs
Superbugs have been honing their defensive capabilities for at least 450 million years.
While many species of bacteria are beneficial, even crucial, to the health of humans and animals, other microbes are far less friendly and can damage cells and cause disease.
Scientific analysis shows that superbugs have been living in the intestines of animals ever since the first creature crawled out of the sea and onto land. Since they first emerged, these microbes have benefited from innate resistance to difficult conditions.
Even the earliest superbugs were capable of withstanding drought and lack of nutrients – unlike most bacteria which become dehydrated and die when excreted in the form of feces, enterococci perseveres.
As medical science has progressed in recent centuries, less hardy yet destructive bacteria have retreated in the face of antibiotics and disinfectants. But the superbug remains a fearsome adversary that has grown stronger as modern medicine has become more widely available.
Superbugs fighting back
Antibiotics drugs have historically saved millions of lives and common illnesses are no longer a threat thanks to their prescription. However, widespread use has enabled superbugs to adapt and fight back.
The problem has been made worse by the over-prescription and misuse of antibiotic medications – up to 50% of the time antibiotics are prescribed when they're not needed or with an incorrect dosage and duration.
Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in an increased chance of people being infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria which can cause disease.
This is of particular concern in hospitals, where around 5% of hospitalized patients will fight infections that arise during their stay.
Stopping the superbug
The challenge now facing scientists is to come up with new ways of stopping the spread of superbugs.
Recent research has revealed the genes that were gained by enterococci hundreds of millions of years ago, when they became resistant to drying out, and to disinfectants and antibiotics that attack their cell walls.
Francois Lebreton, author of the study Tracing the Enterococci from Paleozoic Origins to the Hospital, published in the journal Cell, says: “These are now targets for our research to design new types of antibiotics and disinfectants that specifically eliminate enterococci, to remove them as threats to hospitalized patients.”
In the meantime, people can protect themselves from superbugs by taking simple steps like washing their hands regularly.
But for those who are already ill, it’s vital to use antibiotics the right way. The World Health Organization advises not to take them with a viral infection and to finish the full course when prescribed by a doctor.
Through a combination of common sense and cutting-edge research it is hoped that this ancient menace can be consigned to the history books once and for all.