Meet the iChip, a plastic block that helped scientists discover a new antibiotic that kills superbugs. Will it be enough to save humankind from the coming bacterial apocalypse? ... Even more exciting is the innovation used to discover teixobactin: the unassuming plastic blocks. Each one is called an iChip, short for isolation chip, so-named because of how it captures microbes from soil. Until now, scientists hunting for antibiotics haven’t been able to study 99 percent of the world’s microbial species because, when ripped from the outdoors and encouraged to grow under desolate laboratory conditions, the vast majority of bacteria die. The iChip overcomes this problem by keeping things dirty: Burying soil microbes in their natural habitat during the culturing process preserves the organic compounds they need to thrive, enticing previously stubborn microorganisms to multiply under human supervision. ... An investigation by a U.K. government task force estimates that the global toll of antibiotic resistance is 700,000 deaths per year—and that it could soar to 10 million by 2050. In the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-immune bacteria annually; some 23,000 die. (The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the estimate “a bare minimum.”) All that illness and death exacts substantial economic losses, too: The U.K. task force projects that resistance will sap between 2 and 3.5 percent of the world’s GDP—about $100 trillion—over the next 35 years. ... The iChip could prove an essential tool for warding off bacteria’s looming assault on humans, but it’s not a cure-all. ... Rather than trying to determine what biological compounds soil bacteria need to flourish—science still doesn’t have a precise answer—he focused on the simple fact that many microbes are happy in dirt.
For most of my life, if I’ve thought at all about the bacteria living on my skin, it has been while trying to scrub them away. But recently I spent four weeks rubbing them in. I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide. ... While most microbiome studies have focused on the health implications of what’s found deep in the gut, companies like AOBiome are interested in how we can manipulate the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis. ... AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. ... I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.
Fifteen years after the U.S. declared drug-resistant infections to be a grave threat, the crisis is only worsening, a Reuters investigation finds, as government agencies remain unwilling or unable to impose reporting requirements on a healthcare industry that often hides the problem. ... Even when recorded, tens of thousands of deaths from drug-resistant infections – as well as many more infections that sicken but don’t kill people – go uncounted because federal and state agencies are doing a poor job of tracking them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the go-to national public health monitor, and state health departments lack the political, legal and financial wherewithal to impose rigorous surveillance. ... As America learned in the battle against HIV/AIDS, beating back a dangerous infectious disease requires an accurate count that shows where and when infections and deaths are occurring and who is most at risk. Doing so allows public health agencies to quickly allocate money and manpower where they are needed. But the United States hasn’t taken the basic steps needed to track drug-resistant infections.
The overuse of antibiotics has transformed what had been a hypothetical menace into a clear and present one: superbugs, bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics. By British government estimates, about 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections worldwide. If trends continue, that number is expected to soar to 10 million a year globally by 2050—more people than currently die from cancer. ... Research has found that as much as 90 percent of the antibiotics administered to pigs pass undegraded through their urine and feces. This has a direct impact on farmed seafood. The waste from the pigpens at the Jiangmen farm flowing into the ponds, for example, exposes the fish to almost the same doses of medicine the livestock get—and that’s in addition to the antibiotics added to the water to prevent and treat aquatic disease outbreaks. The fish pond drains into a canal connected to the West River, which eventually empties into the Pearl River estuary, on which sit Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau. The estuary receives 193 metric tons (213 tons) of antibiotics a year, Chinese scientists estimated in 2013. ... distribution networks that move the seafood around the world are often as murky as the waters in which the fish are raised. Federal agencies trying to protect public health face multiple adversaries: microbes rapidly evolving to defeat antibiotics and shadowy seafood companies that quickly adapt to health regulations to circumvent them, moving dirty seafood around the world in much the same way criminal organizations launder dirty money. ... China’s rates of drug resistance remain among the highest in the world. ... harvested in China but was passed through Malaysia, where it acquired Malaysian certificates of origin. This illegal transshipping, as the maneuver is called
The cost of crab blood has been quoted as high as $14,000 per quart. ... Their distinctive blue blood is used to detect dangerous Gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli in injectable drugs such as insulin, implantable medical devices such as knee replacements, and hospital instruments such as scalpels and IVs. Components of this crab blood have a unique and invaluable talent for finding infection, and that has driven up an insatiable demand. Every year the medical testing industry catches a half-million horseshoe crabs to sample their blood. ... The number of crabs harvested by the U.S. biomedical industry jumped from an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 in the 1990s to more than 610,000 crabs in 2012, according to the ASMFC's latest stock assessment report.
What Roberts has just done, in an action that he and people who support him have performed hundreds of times, is to return to a practice that was abandoned more than 40 years ago. He has sampled the environment, hoping to find in the dirtiest, most germ-filled places an answer to one of the most pressing problems of our day. ... Drug resistance—the ability of bacteria to defend themselves against the compounds we use to kill them—has impaired the effectiveness of almost every antibiotic produced since the first ones were developed, in the 1940s. At least 700,000 people are estimated to die worldwide every year from infections that no longer respond to antibiotics. That toll could balloon to more than 10 million a year by 2050 if we can’t slow the spread of resistance or find new drugs; routine surgeries and minor injuries will become life-threatening. ... Yet making the necessary changes to stave off this catastrophe seems to be beyond us. We continue to take antibiotics with abandon (nearly a third of antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. aren’t actually needed) and feed huge quantities of them to farm animals. And pharmaceutical companies—daunted by how quickly resistance can undermine drugs that may take a decade and a billion dollars to develop—are not rushing to fill the gap. ... He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.