Friday, April 04, 2008

Quote of the week "There are much yummier and easier things to eat in the human body"

An interesting new paper has appeared in one of the those non Open Access journals - Science. Normally I do not write about such closed access, closed minded things, but I want to make an exception here. The paper is by George Church and colleagues on bacteria that subsist on a diet of antibiotics.

The paper is perfectly reasonable, if not pretty cool. Although it is a bit over hyped. It is obvious that bacteria would be able to eat antibiotics. Not only has this been shown previously, (as Church is very careful to point out) but bacteria eat anything and everything. So of course they will eat energy rich antibiotic molecules. The real problem in this case is the fear mongering that will come with the reporting on this. In the first few articles we already see this. For example, Reuters says
Church said the finding underscores the extent to which bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, a process that started almost as soon as penicillin was introduced in the 1940s.
Ummm ... antibiotics have actually been around for billions of years. Microbes make them all the time. So resistance too has been around for a long time. Yes, we are selecting for strains resistant to all our classes of antibiotics. But resistance itself did not start with the introduction of penicillin. I note the AP story got this right:
Nor is it a surprise that soil bacteria can withstand some antibiotics; some had already been found. After all, a number of antibiotics are natural — think penicillin. Some antibiotics have been derived from soil.
The only sense in all the stories I saw came from Jo Handelsman who was quoted in many of them:
"Thank goodness we have those bacteria to eat at least some of the antibiotics," said bacteriologist Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wasn't involved in the study. "Nature's pretty effective." From AP article.
Even better, Handelsman tried to calm the fears about whether bacteria would eat antibiotics given to treat infections:
But bacteriologist Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin, Madison thinks this is unlikely, as “there are much yummier and easier things to eat in the human body."
And for that, she gets the quote of the week.

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