Since commercial production of penicillin began in the 1940s, antibiotics have been the miracle drugs of modern medicine, suppressing infectious diseases that have afflicted human beings for thousands of years. But today, as a generation of Baby Boomers begins to enter a phase of life marked by the ailments of aging, we are running out of miracles against bacteria.
"Within just a few years, we could be seeing that most of our microorganisms are resistant to most of our antibiotics," said Dr. Jack Edwards, chief of infectious diseases at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Terry Hazen, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and director of its ecology program, is not at all surprised by the tenacity of our bacterial foes. "We are talking about 3.5 billion years of evolution," he said. "They are the dominant life on Earth."
Bacteria have invaded virtually every ecological niche on the planet. Human explorers of extreme environments such as deep wells and mines are still finding new bacterial species. "As you go deeper into the subsurface, thousands and thousands of feet, you find bacteria that have been isolated for millions of years - and you find multiple antibiotic resistance," Hazen said.
In his view, when bacteria develop resistance to modern antibiotics, they are merely rolling out old tricks they mastered eons ago in their struggle to live in harsh environments in competition with similarly resilient species.