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Latest Superbug Not a New Bug, Maybe Not Super. Just Evolution

E. coli
E. coli


E. coli

Two story themes have come out recently that should remind us that bacteria rule this planet.

Bacteria were here first, they constitute most life on the planet, we wouldn’t survive without them and the best we can probably hope for is prudent accommodation.

A big story over the last few weeks was the warning of a new superbug, which wasn’t quite right.

It was actually a new gene mutation — dubbed New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase 1, or NDM-1 for short — that can transform a normally harmless bacterium like E. coli into a drug-resistant menace.The bugs involved here are not new and neither is the tendency for genetic change. It’s what they do.

The Indians were not too happy about the “New Delhi” part of the name given for this mutant gene because of the threat the news poses to their booming “medical tourism” industry. But that’s another story … The gene mutation was found in several dozen British patients who had traveled to India for health care, within two very common digestive system bacteria E. coli and K. pneumoniae.

Predictably, given the sometimes unholy alliance between the public health community (which on occasion needs to get your attention) and the media (which always needs your attention), the story was initially played as a huge new potential threat to humanity and then, a week or so later, as overblown.

In any case, the concern should probably not be on the latest bug — whether it’s an NDM-1 version of E. coli, MRSA or that old-time favorite flesh-eating bacteria.

The bigger issue here is the ongoing problem of antibiotic resistance. Given the widespread and often inappropriate over-use of these important drugs, some are again (it’s a recurring theme) predicting the End of Antibiotics — and presumably, the beginning of a new bacterial onslaught against humanity.

Few probably pay much attention to this kind of apocalyptic talk. We just assume they’ll come up with new drugs, which they (those evil drug companies) actually do keep doing.

Public concern over the latest example of bacterial evolution, this particular superbug, likely will diminish again as the prediction of global slaughter by microbe fails to materialize.

Or, perhaps this latest superbug episode will finally cause the medical community to change its behavior and start limiting the use of these drugs to only when needed.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.