It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s… Superbug!

Tania Pellegrini
11 October 2012

Above: 3D representation of the atomic structure of Penicillin g, taken from pdb code 1gm7 (Bassophile at en.wikipedia)

When you're sick with a sore throat or an ear infection, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics. You might also take them to clear up annoying acne, a skin infection, or a urinary tract infection. Years ago, people often died because infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and some sexually transmitted diseases were untreatable. But thanks to antibiotics, many of these diseases can now be effectively treated. Unfortunately, the improper use of antibiotics has also led to the development of potentially dangerous superbugs.

Fast Fact: Antibiotics fight infections caused by bacteria, but do not help against infections caused by viruses, like the flu.So how do antibiotics work? In the case of a bacterial infection like strep throat, antibiotics kill the bacteria causing the sore throat, or at very least stop them from multiplying and causing the infection to get worse.

One of the best-known antibiotics is penicillin. It was actually discovered by accident back in 1928! Biologist and pharmacist Alexander Fleming noticed that one of his bacterial cultures had become contaminated with mould. The odd thing was that the bacteria seemed to be dying. It turned out that the mould was producing a substance that was destroying the bacterial cell walls. Today, this substance is known as penicillin.

Meanwhile, some bacteria have become resistant to many different antibiotics. These “superbugs” have changed some of their genes, evolving in such a way that they can block the effects of antibiotics. When an antibiotic is ineffective against a certain strain of bacteria, the bacteria are said to be “resistant” to that antibiotic. The more antibiotics a superbug can fight off, the more difficult it becomes to treat the infection. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem and doctors have begun looking for new medicines to replace the ones that are no longer effective.

Fast Fact: Penicillin, one of the first antibiotics discovered, got its name from the mould that produces it – Penicillium notatum.Steps can be taken to help stop the spread of antibiotic resistance. For example, you should take antibiotics for as long as directed by your doctor, even if you start to feel better. This will make sure all of the illness-causing germs are killed. It is also important to remember that antibiotics only target bacteria. They have no effect on viruses. Taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection won't make you feel better and may actually help the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You should also stay home when you are sick to avoid passing on the bug to your friends. And last but certainly not least, wash your hands frequently.

Learn More!

Antibiotic Resistance (Health Canada) Antimicrobial Resistance (National Institutes of Health) Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics (Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology) About Antimicrobial Resistance: A Brief Overview (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Antibiotic Awareness

Tania Pellegrini

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