Antibiotics Are Powerless Against This New Superbug

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 11, 2015 2:35 pm


Sooner or later, evolution was going to render antibiotics useless, and new evidence indicates we’re quickly being outflanked by infectious bacteria.

Researchers in China have discovered a strain of E. coli bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics. In a study published last month in The Lancet, the scientists describe the emergence of a new gene, MCR-1, that grants E. coli bacteria immunity to a class of antibiotics called colistin, also referred to as polymyxin. Colistin is widely considered a last-resort treatment against multi-drug resistant bacterial infections in humans, but now that this defense line has been breached, scientists will need to expand their arsenal of infection-fighting weaponry.

Livestock the Culprit

E. coli  are already more resistant to antibiotics due to an additional membrane in their cell walls. This added line of defense places E. coli in a class of bacteria known as gram-negative. Colistin was one of the few antibiotics known to be effective against this class of microbes, because of its ability to disrupt the structure of gram-negative bacteria cell membranes.

The pan-resistant E. coli was first found in Chinese livestock, but was soon detected in humans. And in the latest news, the impervious strain has spread to Europe where it has infected poultry in Germany, as well as a man in Denmark. Researchers worked quickly to sequence the bacteria, and identified the MCR-1 gene as the immunity-granting culprit. MCR-1 is found in the plasmid, which is a separate section of DNA in cells that often carries genes that help cells survive, such as genes that encode a resistance to antibiotics.

The Chinese researchers also reported another troubling finding about MCR-1: It is the first case of a colistin-resistant gene spreading through horizontal gene transfer, a process by which organisms share genetic material directly with each other as opposed to passing it down through generations. Sharing genes directly allows mutations to spread through a population very quickly, and is one of the primary means by which bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics.

A Growing Problem

While the growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has troubled scientists for some time, it has only recently become an issue of pressing importance, largely because the development of new forms of antibiotics has tapered off. The livestock industry’s widespread and often unregulated use of antibiotics, including colistin, to keep animals healthy and promote growth has been identified as a major culprit in breeding new forms of antibiotic resistance. The rapid growth of livestock production in China has been of particular concern, as the government there imposes few limitations on the use of antibiotics.

Other factors that can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria include the misuse of the drugs by humans, such as doctors who prescribe them to their patients before a diagnosis is made. Patients who fail to complete their full course of antibiotics may also aid in creating a resistant strain. Health officials have stressed the importance of better education regarding antibiotics, as well as stricter regulations regarding their use.

The implications of antibiotic-resistant bacteria include so-called superbugs, or bacteria harmful to humans that do not respond to any known medicines. The World Health Organization has already warned antimicrobial resistance could lead to “a return to the pre-antibiotic era,” where once curable infections prove to be fatal.

Unstoppable diseases have all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster, but they may soon become all too real.


Photo credit: motorolka/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Target a bacteriophage.

    • Maia

      Maybe. But we’ve still got to STOP abusing antibiotics.

      • Uncle Al

        Separate veterinary and human pharmacopoeias. One wearies of Luddites whining “re-establish the rule of nature.” We are at least 4 billion people beyond that. Tell Brooklyn, NY it will have cesspits instead of its 1900s sewer system.

        • Maia

          I think you’ve invented an attack of the Luddites, there is no mention here of re-establishing the 1900s, let alone cesspits!

          • OWilson

            The Luddites are always alive and well.

            They have effectively halted the construction of major new highways, dams, pipelines, energy transmission lines, power stations, heavy industrial plants.

            Like the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, they’ll one day be grazing their sheep in Manhattan, and wondering by who, what or why those old monumental ruins were built.

          • Uncle Al

            2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, “end fossil fuels.” Thermodynamics says “idiots,” Let’s pull a few terawatts from the wind 24/7. How could that possibly change anything, like weather and climate.

            Do you know what makes the Bay of Fundy different from down the road Coney Island? No? Then don’t blather about harvesting tidal power.

          • Maia

            You are hearng things, Uncle, I never said a word about harvesting tidal power.Or maybe you meant to reply to someone else?

          • Uncle Al

            We observe an insular lack of self-awareness. Begin with bacteriophages,

            Science 350(6265) 1163 (2015). doi:10.1126/science.aad6791
            “Phage therapy redux – What is to be done?” 04 December 2015

            Ignorance is not a form of knowing things, nor is faith. You look it up, you understand it, then you comment. Opinion means nothing. The universe is not about goodwill.

    • Timothy Chase

      Bit outta luck, there. If the plasmid belonged to P or W incompatibility groups we could send in the PRD1 bacteriophage which kills only those bacteria carrying plasmids belonging to those groups. MCR-1 is carried by a plasmid belonging to the FII incompatibility group. And you don’t want to indiscriminately kill all e coli. They are early colonizers of the infantile gut that pave the way for other bacteria that play a critical role in digestion.

      • Maia

        Yes, we DON’T want to kill all of a any class of any organism, including bacteria, since they are helping in many ways to keep us alive and thriving. We need to learn more before we get out the guns and poisons.

        • Uncle Al

          “More studies are needed” Economics embraces both Milton Friedman and Karl Marx. How many more studies will be needed to expose it as criminal fraud?

      • Uncle Al

        Gene-gineer the bacteriophage. Russian medicine went bacteriophage for lacking Western antibiotic technology. It works.

        The Pentagon recently admitted to a massive cyber warfare effort – always killing alligators from the previous war. Go after the hatchery by biologically targeting unique genomes. First strike!

        • Timothy Chase

          I take it they don’t have streptomyces in Russia? That genus of bacteria is responsible for most of the antibiotics we have, and they are commonly found in soil.

          I was mistaken about the polymyxin resistance plasmid (pHNSHP45, which carries the resistance gene MCR-1) belonging to incompatibility group incFII. I had confused it with plasmid pGUE-NDM which carries NDM-1 that confers resistance to a wide variety of antibiotics. Fortunately for us, pGUE-NDM, belonging to group incFII, has a narrow host range. The polymyxin resistance plasmid has a broad host range. This rules out incFII. incP (susceptible to bacteriophage PRD-1) is still a possibility, but I haven’t been able to find anything yet that states the group. However, the polymyxin resistance plasmid isn’t as worrisome as the Lancet makes it out to be as it carries resistance only to the polymyxins.

          • Uncle Al

            “8^>) Beware click bait. I worked in design and manufacture of human implantables. Science plus engineering, we could do pretty much anything imaginable, and more. The FDA was, and remains, very enthusiastic about preventing both.

        • Timothy Chase

          With regard to using phages, you may be closer than you realize… I was researching…

          Ojala, Ville, Jarkko Laitalainen, and Matti Jalasvuori. “Fight evolution with evolution: plasmid‐dependent phages with a wide host range prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance.” Evolutionary applications6.6 (2013): 925-932.

          Targeting bacteria carrying plasmids that confer antibiotic resistance with engineered phages.

  • Erik Bowen

    “Thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon potion kills MRSA superbug”-CNN ?

    • Chris O’Donnel

      Yea, onions, vinegar, and garlic. I agree with Uncle Al. Target the bacteriophage!!

    • Maia

      Give us a clue, what’s in this potion.
      Otherwise, why mention it at all?

      • Diabolicus Rex

        He did, in quotes. Google much?

  • OWilson

    Technology (and biological research) is a dynamic field.
    Today a trojan, tomorrow cryptology. Today a pesky bacteria, tomorrow a oil slick consuming supergerm, or a sterile mosquito.

    (Keeps the hackers and the researchers, and their funding, in perpetual motion) :)

  • disqus_DXeTshyYtz

    “Sooner or later, evolution was going to render antibiotics useless” is just not true. There are naturally occurring antibiotics, yes, but the environments that are causing antibiotic resistance are man-made. Saying ‘oh, sooner or later it was going to happen anyway’ is a lie and a very dangerous one at that because it encourages the general public to view this as an inevitable problem when it should be a preventable one.

    • drbarry

      I totally agree with this comment. Antibiotics have been overused in clinical practice for a very long time especially in the treatment of viruses on which they have no effect whatsoever. Worse still agribusiness misuses antibiotics by the metric tonne in feed to speed cattle growth. All these antibiotics wind up eventually in the environment as agents of artificial selection selecting drug resistant organisms of many different kinds not just E coli.

      • Hector Rodriguez

        Disagree. There is no artificial selection. There is only selection. The organism that adapts better to its ecological niche and to changes to it (and it is irrelevant what caused the change) is the one who will be able to pass more of its genes to the next generation. That is the concept of fitness that is central to evolution. It does not matter if the change or the stress placed upon the niche is man-made, natural, extraterrestrial or whatever. So, yes; evolution was going to render antibiotics useless sooner or later. We should have been wiser using them. And many of us will die because of it. But not all. A few of us will survive. The ones who are able to resist the infections. And those genes will pass on to the next generations. And life (and death) will go on on this planet.

  • Angelica Perduta

    industrial scale use of antibiotics in live stock on a global and permanent scale, massively increases the environment where superbugs evolve. IMO this practice needs to be stopped.

    • OWilson

      Obviously you’ve never lived in a third world village where the entire livestock has been decimated by preventable disease. I just came back from one.

      Ever see those poor malnutrition wide eyed children on the charity posters?

      And don’t poor animals deserve the same treatment we get when we are sick?

      You get yours, though, right? :)

      • Maia

        Angelica and I are referring to UNNECESSARY and EXCESSIVE use, not suggesting we stop using antibiotics when they actually are needed and actually work. So many antibiotic prescriptions and animal uses are used for viral diseases, against which antibiotics are not only ineffective, but harmful and end up in our water supply via urine and feces. Milk cows here are fed large amounts of antibiotics so that the animals can be kept in relatively unsanitary and stressful conditions, and thus reap more profit.
        Better to “treat” the situation. If an animal gets a bacterial infection, by all means treat it. If a human gets one, treat it. But we don’t need to literally dump antibiotics everywhere “just in case” or simply to give people the impression that something is being done for their moneyt/time with a vet or MD. Over-use is documented as a leading cause of growing ineffectiveness.
        If I say that sugar and salt are over-used does that translate in your mind to: let’s ban sugar and salt?

        REPEAT: no one is advocating non-use of antibiotics! In fact, we want them to be effective when they are needed!

        • OWilson


          As long as McDonalds or KFC don’t run out of product :)

      • Angelica Perduta

        Like Maia says… we are concerned about the antibiotics being in their food every day regardless if they are sick or not.

        • OWilson

          “Concern” is such a warm and fuzzy concept.

          First they need to be fed, then folks like you, Maia and Michele O and Bloomberg can decide on their menus and sizes of servings.

          (Maybe over a glass of a good Chardonnay.)

          • Angelica Perduta

            superbugs evolve in an environment where they are constantly exposed to antibiotics.

      • Dogman72

        I think the issue is the profligate use of antibiotics on healthy animals in order to promote rapid growth. Treatment of sick animals is not in question.

  • Uncle Al

    Copper plus sulfinic acids plus detergent will do a job on pretty much everything, as will hypochlorite bleach with its pH lowered toward chloride-hypochlorite conproportionation with acetate buffer. So what? Neither is systemically active by oral administration. Consider concentration. Adding 100 mg of antibiotic to a 160 lb human is 1.4 ppm.

  • ikihi

    stop letting corporations pump their livestock full of anti-biotics.

  • Doug Nusbaum

    Richard feynman: “Nature cannot be fooled” Of course, what nature is, and what constitutes attempting to ‘fool her” are not trivial questions. Are vaccines an attempt to fool nature? Clearly, anti biotics are. :-)

    Perhaps this is better stated as “we have outwitted nature” is equivalent to saying “I have a prestigious degree in some sciency area, and yet remain lethally stupid.”


    Drug-resistance and antibiotics-resistance are become more and more seriously because of abuse in Antibiotic. ABF(Antibiotic-Free) would be a next global trend.


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