We humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution on the planet, but that’s just a conceit. It takes humans roughly twenty years to reproduce, whereas some bacteria can make copies of themselves every 20 minutes. Countless generations of bacteria have honed and perfected their genomes into extremely evolved biological machines.
Most bacteria are harmless, and some are quite useful, even tasty – witness the lactofermented pickles and sauerkraut I made this summer. But some bacteria are pathogenic nightmares that have swarmed over the planet and caused untold misery and billions of deaths. For most of human history it has been so – the bugs were winning. Then a bright period dawned in the early 20th century – the Era of Antibiotics. At last we were delivered from the threat of pestilence, never more to suffer from plague and disease like our unfortunate ancestors. Infections were miraculously cured with a simple injection or pill, childhood diseases were no longer reaping their tragic harvest, and soldiers on the battlefield were surviving wounds that would have festered and led to a slow, painful death.
Now it seems like this bright spot of relief from bacterial disease might be drawing to an end. Resistant strains of bacteria are in the news these days, and the rise of superbugs seems inevitable. But is it? Have we run out of tools to fight back? Not quite yet as it turns out. But there’s a lot of work to do to make sure we win this battle.