Humans have been around for around 300,000 years, and University of Texas San Antonio microbiology professor Karl Klose wants people to understand that, while that’s impressive, bacteria have been alive for more than four billion years and are more evolutionarily advanced.
At the San Antonio Botanical Garden on Tuesday, Klose told a crowd of more than 70 gathered for UTSA’s 50th Anniversary Scholars Speakers Series that “bacteria can live anywhere under any condition,” and there should be more concern for the bacteria that exists among audience members than in the garden itself.
“You should be more scared of the superbugs in here than outside,” Klose said. “In fact, there are more bacteria cells in you than human cells of human genes. You are all more bacterial than you are human.”
Klose’s presentation titled “What’s Bugging Us? The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs,” detailed why creating new drugs and defeating antibiotic-resistant bacteria “should be considered a global health arms race,” a continuation of the Tedx San Antonio talk he gave in 2013 where he explained how and why antibiotic resistance is a global health problem.
Antibiotic resistance is, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, one of the biggest public health challenges of our time, with at least 2 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with antibiotic-resistant infections each year.
Of those infected, at least 23,000 people die, according to the CDC. By 2050 it is estimated that antimicrobial resistance will kill about 1 million people in the United States.
“More people will die because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than cancer in the coming years,” Klose said. “That’s because bacteria have evolved in a lot of simple and effective ways to prevent being killed by antibiotics,” including picking up genes from their surroundings when bacteria die or through bacterial conjugation, akin to sexual reproduction.
“Most people think of other living organisms being like humans, and if you think like that, then it doesn’t make sense how bacteria could become to resistant so quickly,” Klose said, noting that bacteria’s longevity stems from its ability to take what it wants from its surroundings, and ability to rally against what it doesn’t need.
“When you see bacteria evolving rapidly knowing they are going to be killed by antibiotics, you can really see how they have remained strong against evolutionary pressure. They have managed to remain resistant. And we have to accept that to learn from that and combat it.”
Klose gives the example of how bacteria might pick up genes from its surroundings by comparing it to genetics and eye color: Someone with blue eyes has that gene in their genetic history, while bacteria can find a gene and take blue eyes from it directly.
Bacteria can take whatever it wants or needs, which makes it impossible to create an antibiotic or medication for because it is always evolving.
While Klose admits that there is no simple solution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there are some things people can do to reduce the impact bacteria might have in their lives. This includes understanding the impact antibiotics have on beef, poultry, and fish raised for consumption, and overuse of antibiotics for infections such as a cold or a flu.
Asked by a member of the audience whether people should stop using antimicrobial hand sanitizers and soaps, Klose said definitively, “yes.”
“Hand sanitizers came about as a marketing thing, and was pushed into the public eye, playing off the phobia that people have of germs anyway,” Klose said. “There was never any data that antimicrobial soap or sanitizer would prevent you from” illness or infection.
In fact, Klose explained, overutilization of antibiotics is part of what got the medical community into the complicated web of antibiotic resistance because drugs like penicillin would be prescribed for illnesses other than bacterial infections, promoting antibiotic resistance.
“We have only been using antibiotics regularly since 1945, and we are already needing new antibiotics that will target the bugs that have come about” due to antibacterial resistance, Klose said.
An audience member asked Klose whether cancer cells and antibiotic-resistant bacteria behave in the same way. “Cancer is your own cells doing something bad to you,” he said, while bacteria are something foreign to your body impacting it negatively.
To another audience member, Klose said that it is important to get your flu shot because “it is the most dangerous microbe we have.”
“Thousands of people die of the flu each year, meanwhile we have one person who died of Ebola,” Klose said. “We have people screaming for an Ebola vaccine, but the reality is we can treat that virus. We know what it is. We can’t treat bacteria that is always evolving, not without a more concentrated effort.”