Artwork by Jane Hurd/National Geographic
Artwork by Jane Hurd/National Geographic

Antisocial Medicine

One of the biggest surprises to come out of microbiology in recent years is that bacteria have a social life. Rather than existing as lonely, autonomous creatures, bacteria live in communities, in which they cooperate, compete, and communicate. In the January issue of Scientific American, I have a feature about how some scientists are trying to translate their growing understanding of the social life of bacteria into a new kind of medicine. By preventing microbes from cooperating, we may be able to bring infections to a halt. Better yet, this kind of antisocial medicine may even be able to avoid–or at least slow down–the evolution of drug resistance in bacteria.

Here’s the introduction to my piece:

At the University of Zurich, Rolf Kümmerli investigates new drugs to stop deadly infections. He spends his days in a laboratory stocked with petri dishes and flasks of bacteria—exactly the place where you would expect him to do that sort of work. But Kümmerli took an odd path to get to that lab. As a graduate student, he spent years hiking through the Swiss Alps to study the social life of ants. Only after he earned a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology did he turn his attention to microbes.

The path from ants to antibiotics is not as roundabout as it may seem. For decades scientists have studied how cooperative behavior evolves in animal societies such as ant colonies, in which sterile female workers raise the eggs of their queen. A new branch of science—sometimes called “sociomicrobiology”—is revealing that some of the same principles that govern ants can explain the emergence of bacterial societies. Like ants, microbes live in complex communities, where they communicate with one another to cooperate for the greater good. This insight of social evolution suggests a new strategy for stopping infections: instead of attacking individual bacteria, as traditional antibiotics do, scientists are exploring the notion of attacking entire bacterial societies.

New strategies are exactly what we need right now. Bacteria have evolved widespread resistance to antibiotics, leaving doctors in a crisis. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in the U.S. alone, 23,000 people die of antibiotic-resistant infections. Strains of tuberculosis and other pathogens are emerging that are resistant to just about every antibiotic in medicine’s arsenal. “It already is a substantial problem,” says Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “And there’s every reason to believe it’s going to get even worse.”

The standard response to this crisis has been to slow the evolution of resistance and find new drugs to replace old ones as they grow weak. But this is only a treadmill solution. Bacteria are relentlessly evolving resistance and will continue to do so unless we find a different way to fight them. “Every time we develop a new drug, it fails,” says John Pepper, a theoretical biologist at the National Cancer Institute. “So the solution is, ‘Quick! Make another antibiotic!’ That helps for a few months. But that’s just not good enough any more.”

You can read the rest here. (Subscription to Scientific American required.)