Work and World

The Antibiotic Apocalypse Explained

What would you say if we told you
that humanity is currently making a collaborative effort to
engineer the perfect superbug? A bug that could kill hundreds
of millions of people? Well, it is happening right now. We are in the process
of creating a superbacterium. Bacteria are among the oldest
living things on this planet. The smallest thing we still consider life,
they are masters of survival and can be found everywhere. Most bacteria are harmless to us. Your body hosts trillions of them,
and they help you to survive. But others can invade your body,
spread quickly, and kill you. Millions of people used to die as a result
of bacterial infections. Until we developed
a superweapon—antibiotics. Together with vaccinations, antibiotics
revolutionized medicine and saved millions of lives. Antibiotics kill the vast majority of
susceptible bacteria fairly quickly, leaving only a small group of survivors that our immune system
then deals with easily. How do antibiotics do this? Imagine a bacterium as
a very complex machine with thousands of complex processes
going on that keep it alive and active. Antibiotics disrupt
this complex machinery, for example, by
interfering with its metabolism, slowing down their growth significantly,
so they are less of a threat. Other antibiotics attack DNA
and prevent it from being replicated, which stops bacteria from multiplying,
ultimately killing them. Or by simply ripping the outer layer
of the bacteria to shreds, so that their insides spill
out and they die quickly. All of this without bothering body cells. But now, evolution is making
things more complicated. By pure random chance, a small minority
of the bacteria invading your body might have evolved a way
to protect themselves. For example, by intercepting
the antibiotics and changing the molecule
so it becomes harmless. Or by investing energy in pumps
that eject the antibiotics before they can do damage. A few immune bacteria
are not that big a deal, because the immune system
can take care of them. But if they escape, they
might spread their immunity. How can bacteria spread immunity? First of all, bacteria
have two kinds of DNA: the chromosome and small
free-floating parts called plasmids. They can hug each other
and exchange those plasmids to exchange useful abilities. This way, immunity can be
spread quickly through a population. Or, in a process called transformation,
bacteria can harvest dead bacteria and collect DNA pieces. This even works between
different bacteria species and can lead to superbugs, bacteria
that are immune to multiple antibiotics. A variety of superbugs
already exist in the world. Especially hospitals are the
perfect breeding grounds for them. Humans have short memories. The horrors of the pre-antibiotic
era have been forgotten. Today, we treat this powerful medicine
as a commodity instead of as the game-changing
achievement of science that it is. This has led to a strange disconnect: hundreds of millions of people
still don’t have access to antibiotics in developing countries, while in other parts of the world
antibiotics are prescribed too freely and taken without care. Antibiotics should be a last-resort drug, not something you take
because your cold is annoying. Another serious problem is
antibiotic use in meat production. At any particular point in time,
humanity holds between 20 and 30 billion
animals as livestock. To make meat cheaper, many animals
are held in horrible conditions, in very tight spaces, and
in unhygienic conditions, the perfect breeding ground for disease. So many animals are given antibiotics
to kill as many bacteria as possible and prevent them from getting sick. Because a cheeseburger
has to cost a dollar. Unsurprisingly, as a
result of this system, we have created
more and more bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. To counteract this, we
use different antibiotics and we have another secret weapon:
there are specific antibiotics that are used to wipe out bacteria
that have developed resistance. There are strict rules for using these
to avoid the creation of a superbacterium. Or so we thought. In late 2015, scary news
arrived from China. Resistance against Colistin,
a last-ditch antibiotic, had been discovered. Colistin is an old drug and was rarely
used, because it can damage the liver. So there was little resistance against it,
which made it a great antibiotic of last resort for certain
complex infections that occur in hospitals to fight bacteria that have become immune
to a whole bunch of other drugs. Bacteria resistance to Colistin
is very, very bad news. It might destroy a last line of defense
and lead to a whole lot of dead people. How could this happen? Millions of animals in Chinese pig farms
have been given Colistin for years. Resistant bacteria developed, spreading
first from animal to animal, and then to humans without being noticed. On an average day, there are
over 100,000 flights on Earth, kind of connecting every
human on the planet. By creating the modern world,
we have also built the infrastructure for a dangerous pandemic. Still, we don’t need to panic just yet. Bacteria evolve, humans do research,
new antibiotics are developed as old ones become obsolete,
technology is advancing every day. The problem is real and serious,
but the fight is far from over. If humanity plays its cards right,
superbugs might turn out to be not very super after all. This video was made possible
by viewer support on and a grant from the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. If you want to support us
to make more videos, you can buy a Kurzgesagt poster or a mug
or donate on Patreon. Thank you so much for your help! Subtitles by the community
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