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That's Called Thinking Ahead

Antibiotic resistance is a problem for modern medicine, as bacteria can defeat or get around almost any drug thrown at them, says Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong. New research shows that bacteria developed genes for antibiotic resistance thousands of years ago, long before antibiotics came about. Researchers from McMaster University found bacteria in 30,000-year-old frozen soil samples that have a wide variety of antibiotic resistance genes, Yong says. These genes could have allowed the bugs to survive many modern drugs, like tetracyclines and vancomycin. Vancomycin is especially interesting, Yong says. The vancomycin-defeating superbugs of today carry a trio of genes known as vanHAX, which alter the protein attacked by the drug, making the medicine useless. When these so-called superbugs started to emerge in the late 1980s, it both surprised and set back the medical establishment. The ancient bugs, the McMaster researchers found, have the same vanHAX clusters, which do the same thing as the modern genes do, Yong adds. In a letter published in Nature, the researchers say their discovery disproves the idea that antibiotic resistance is a new thing. "So what does this mean for the problem of antibiotic resistance today? Is this an old problem that is being blown out of proportion? Can we let the wanton use of antibiotics in modern healthcare and agriculture off the hook? Hardly," Yong says.

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