December 1, 2008 Biophysicists are growing Petri dishes of different species of bacteria in order to develop new antibiotics. The bacteria are subjected to different temperatures and have limited food sources inside the dish. Despite these conditions, most colonies tend to communicate and reproduce. Their growth results in unique patterns of varying colors--a sort of "bacteria painting." Researchers are hoping to learn more about the strategies the bacteria use to thrive, in order to find weaknesses that new drugs could exploit.
- Penicillin-like antibiotics
- Upper respiratory tract infection
- Transmission (medicine)
- Antibiotic resistance
There was a time when doctors thought antibiotics could cure all. It's a different story today as drug-resistant bacteria emerge in places like hospitals and schools. To keep up with changes in bacterial behavior, scientists are fighting bacteria using an artistic approach.
Biophysicist Herbert Levine's Petri dishes look like an exhibit at a modern art museum. His beautiful images are actually made from bacteria similar to the ones that cause deadly diseases. Dr. Levine uses bacteria in Petri dishes in his quest to discover the next super drug. He's fighting a new generation of bacterial infections that includes MRSA, a flesh-eating disease resistant to antibiotics.
"We thought we had a whole arsenal of antibiotics and these would always work ý but the bacteria are smarter than we used to give them credit for being," said Dr. Levine, who works at the University of California in San Diego.
Dr. Levine and his team have gone back to the basics of biology. They have created bacteria patterns by changing the temperature and limiting the food sources inside Petri dishes. Despite harsh conditions, the colonies find ways to communicate and reproduce.
"If we can understand what strategies they're using, we can devise methods to defeat those strategies," Dr. Levine said.
Through Dr. Levine's work, scientists have learned bacteria are very resourceful. They enclose themselves in areas antibiotics can't find. They also soak up antibiotics to keep the rest of their colony safe and transform themselves into new strains that are less sensitive to the drugs.
"If that basic understanding of nature leads to better life for humanity, then, of course, that makes us even more excited," Dr. Levine said.
Along the way, scientists turned the study of bacteria into an art form.
Dr. Levine and his colleague, Eshel Ben-Jacob, use the patterns to create computer models. One day those models could be the basis for new medicines that fight all types of bacteria.
WHAT IS MRSA: MRSA is a common cause of skin infections; it can also cause pneumonia, ear infections and sinusitis. MRSA bacteria are sometimes dubbed 'superbugs' because they are highly resistant to common antibiotics like penicillin, making infections difficult to treat effectively. Bacteria are highly adaptive, and over time they naturally develop resistance, protecting them from incoming germs (and antibiotics) and making them harder to kill. If MRSA enters the body through the skin, it can cause irritating skin infections, but if it enters the lungs or bloodstream, it can cause serious blood infections, pneumonia, even death. MRSA infection rates in the US have been increasing since 1970, largely because surveillance programs to monitor its spread are not effective. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have all but eliminated MRSA from their hospitals through such surveillance programs, which focus on screening patients for MRSA at admission and isolating any carriers.
DRUG RESISTANCE: Bacteria are highly adaptive, and over time they naturally develop resistance, protecting them from incoming germs (and antibiotics), which makes them more difficult to kill. If someone has strep throat, for example, repeated exposure to penicillin and amoxicillin can result in a throat full of bacteria that can shield strep germs from the older drugs. The surviving bacteria then reproduce more and become more dominant. Sometimes parents discontinue antibiotic medication prematurely when they or their children begin to feel better, so the strep germ isn't entirely killed off, leading to much more severe infections requiring the use of even stronger drugs later on. This can also happen with many other infections inside the body and on the skin.
The American Physical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report. This report has also been produced thanks to a generous grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.