Spiral Notebook: How we're handing bacteria the advantage in the Battle of Wounded Knee

By Giles Broadbent on January 7, 2014 1:01 AM |

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By Giles Broadbent

War drives innovation. Copper sheathing for hulls was first suggested in 1708 to tackle the problem of weed growth that slowed and hobbled ships of the line.

But it wasn't until decades later the practice was pushed and perfected.

That was because the Royal Navy was fighting wars against its three greatest rivals France, Spain and the Netherlands.

These days we often coat hulls with antibiotics to repel the flora and fauna.

Which, we now discover, is akin to the 18th century navy handing foreign rivals their cannons, know-how and numerical superiority.

For war drives innovation and bacteria is evolving to the point where antibiotics are an endangered species. The distinctly 18th century fate of death from a scratch or a mild infection is fast returning as an everyday reality.

Exposure to antibiotics, by means of our over-liberal use, is giving bacteria the edge. It already was a feisty evolutionary marvel without our largesse. It takes a population 20 minutes to double so any happenstance evolutionary advantage takes hold fast and spreads quickly.

Meanwhile, our ability to find new classes of antibiotics has virtually ground to a halt.

Health planners are now raising the prospect of limiting antibiotics to human use only, with significant implications for farming and food production.

Bacteria have been upon the planet 3.5billion years. The reign of the antibiotics has lasted a measly 90.

Er, happy New Year.

Follow Giles Broadbent on Twitter: @MediaGulch


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