The Art of Microscopic Warfare: The Battle Against Bacteria

By Ramesh Velupillaimani, PhD
Faculty, College of Science, Engineering and Technology

Posted on November 03, 2017  in  [ Engineering & Technology ]

By Nicolas Sever
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major, College of Science, Engineering and Technology

Starting roughly 3.8 billion years ago, a war was started – the pistol of the Grand Race for Planetary Dominance was fired and genetically based organisms (that’s all of them) began adapting, shuffling their cards and applying new techniques in their will to reign over the animals that were slower to adapt. Some mechanisms worked, and the empires of their respective kingdoms expanded. Some techniques failed, however, and the inventors of such machinations were forced to fold – this planet was no longer theirs. Those who did survive found themselves engaged in an even more difficult conflict: Their opponents had upgraded their weaponry, forged alliances and purchased vassals.

Fast forward to the present day, and this war is still being waged everywhere on earth: on a student’s desk, the public drinking fountain, Fido’s nose and even your own body. Biological organisms, especially microscopic ones, perpetually compete against each other for natural resources, whether that be the local watering hole on the Savannah, the last bit of sugar in a petri dish or the latest opening of Macy’s on Black Friday. To do this, animals possess the ability to edit their genetic material, exchange information with each other through that genetic material or even steal information from other competitors.

The Importance of Penicillin and How It Changed the Fight Against Microbes

In 1940, a scientist named Howard Florey discovered that penicillin could be effectively applied in medicine with the goal of stopping bacterial growth within the human body. It killed a large portion of the bacteria that plague the human race without harming homosapiens. More than this, it was found to be edible to patients – meaning it could be encapsulated and ingested and it could successfully, artfully and delicately remove harmful microbes from the body while simultaneously dancing around much-needed human cells.

Humanity thought that it had finally won the fight against invasive microbes. They began to create various forms of penicillin-based antibiotics, such as ampicillin, amoxicillin and methicillin. This revolutionized the efficiency and necessity of hospital systems. However, bacteria have been in the fight for a significant amount of time and possess mechanisms capable of responding to weapons such as methicillin. After all, the bacteria of earth have long been in competition with other decomposers in the tree of life: the fungi. Since methicillin is derived from penicillin, a chemical produced directly by the mold penicillium notatum, it was only a matter of time before bacteria adapted to the atom bomb of the medical world.

What is MRSA and How Does It Affect Humans?

Now, a particularly tough bacterial species, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is spearheading the infectious counterattack. Being resistant to newer forms of antibiotics, MRSA is sending a warning to physicians: “We are not defeated, and we are ready to respond with heavy resistance.” This is an ominous augury to those involved in the medical field, as it shows that bacteria are not yet defeated. Furthermore, scientists should certainly fear the reaper, as they do not possess many alternatives should bacteria further adapt to antibiotics.

Fortunately, research students at Grand Canyon University, as well as researchers across the globe, have begun looking for an alternative treatment for bacteria like MRSA, with the hopes of beating it to the finish line. The primary area of interest is that of the potential antimicrobial chemicals produced by plants. Plants have been on earth for a while and are also engaged in the fight against constant bacterial siege weaponry. This gives hope that, like penicillium notatum, perhaps there are plants possessing new adaptations against harmful bacteria. There likely are – scientists simply need to find them and utilize them, just as Howard Florey did. Being a hyper-intelligent organism, the human race has thus far proven itself capable of adapting to anything that is thrown at it – it has endured plagues, wars, famine, floods and many other disasters throughout the centuries. It is quite likely then, given some time and effort, that MRSA will soon be introduced to a new-and-improved form of antibiotic.

What You Can Do to Prevent the Spread of Infection

In the meanwhile, there are ways of preventing new MRSAs from developing. Bacteria have been around for a very long time; they are some of the oldest organisms on the planet. Consequently, they have obtained quite a few nifty tricks for responding to outside stimuli and competition. For instance, when a bacterium dies, it leaves behind its innards – the information booklet for system control (DNA) being the most important subset of this carrion. Other bacteria that come into contact with these remains can subsequently absorb and incorporate the free-floating DNA into their own genome. This allows them to obtain new information about how to survive in their environment.

One of these ways of adapting to their environment involves antibiotic resistance. If the bacterium that died survived exposure to an antibiotic previously, chances are that it possesses the ability to fight that drug. This information is contained within its genetics, and these genetics can propagate across species through a mechanism known as transformation. Seeing an opportunity to survive, the bacteria will absorb the DNA and become antibiotic-resistant.

Therefore, there is one extremely important way that everyone can contribute to the fight against organisms like MRSA: Finish the antibiotics that have been prescribed to you. When doctors prescribe antibiotics, they deliberately provide a specific amount. This is to ensure that all bacteria involved in the infection are eradicated and do not escape to spread their antibiotic resistance to others. So, in finishing that pesky, white, hardly palatable disc the doctor gave you, even after your symptoms have disappeared, you are contributing to the future survivability of mankind.

Thank you for your service.

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References:

  • American Chemical Society International Historic Chemical Landmarks. Discovery and Development of Penicillin. Retrieved from: acs.org/content/acs/en/education/wahtischemistry/landmarks/flemingpenicillin.html
  • “Penicillin.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from: britannica.com/science/penicillin

More About Dr. Velupillaimani:

Ramesh Velupillaimani, PhD, is a professor of biosciences in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Grand Canyon University. He received his PhD in microbiology and was awarded with the prestigious Lady Davis Fellowship to work as a post-doctoral research associate at the Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Before he joined Grand Canyon University, Dr. Velupillaimani held a research assistant professor position at the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis at Arizona State University. His research interests focused on the molecular mechanism of photosynthetic energy transduction. He has developed many biological techniques including a simple detection medium for dermatophytic fungi, a novel technique to purify photosynthetic membrane proteins from cyanobacteria and green algae and a simple technique for chloroplast transformation in eukaryotic green alga chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Dr. Velupillaimani holds membership in the following professional societies: American Chemical Society and American Society for Advancement of Sciences. He has contributed three chapters in the Methods in Molecular Biology series and Humana Press USA, along with a chapter in advances in photosynthesis and perspiration. He is the author of several research papers published in top national and international journals and books. In addition to teaching, Dr. Velupillaimani oversees the research program in the Center for Antimicrobial Products at GCU.

More About Nicolas:

Nicolas Sever is a third-year undergraduate student studying biochemistry and molecular biology at Grand Canyon University. He intends to pursue doctoral studies in the same field with an emphasis in immunology research. Rationality and the scientific method have always intrigued him, likely because curiosity and the thrill of exploration are powerful driving forces behind his personality. During summer 2017, Nicolas worked at a veterinary hospital and decided that applied science in the medical fields was not something he desired to pursue – he is of the questioning sort and prefers to think outside of the box. So, with that in mind, he made the decision to obtain a career in the field of biology, particularly on the more microscopic end of that domain. An avid learner, questioner and inspired writer, Nicolas also enjoys physics, philosophy, the humanities and religious topics.

About College of Science, Engineering and Technology

The College of Science, Engineering and Technology offers degree programs that prepare students for high-demand professions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. With an emphasis on Grand Canyon University’s Christian worldview, our college believes in instilling social awareness, responsibility, ethical character and compassion. Our blog, Brain STEM, focuses on topics related to science, engineering and technology, with engaging contributions from students, staff and faculty. 


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