Written by Collin Fifer
Life is a fractal.
To see this, we need only to examine our own bodies. Every human body is a world in itself, but one too tiny for us to see. And just like us humans living on Earth, this tiny microbial world interacts with each other and their host—us.
Like the human world, one of the most impactul things our tiny worlds do is fight against each other.
Humans in the medical field have harvested the power of good microbes to help fight a wide range of infections and diseases in the form of antibiotics. We’re fighting microscopic fire with microscopic fire.
The development of antibiotics is right up there with vaccines, anesthesia, and medical imaging as one of the most important medical developments in history.
Antibiotics have boosted our health and helped lessen and even eradicate the worst effects of terrors of the disease world. But, as with everything in life, there is a good and a bad side to antibiotics.
So, break out your microscopes and prepare to take a microscopic tour of the human body. Let’s take a look at the influential invention of antibiotics.
Before we were aware of the world of microscopic creatures living among us, ancient civilizations used methods very similar to modern antibiotics.
Studies of ancient cultures have found evidence of the medical use of moldy bread. Though this may sound absurd, moldy bread was so effective against infections that references to its use are spread through ancient civilizations from Egypt, China, and Serbia to Greece and Rome.
I bet they thought it was the best thing since sliced bread!
Ancient practices may have been effective, but ancient civilizations used them without understanding why.
We did not discover the microscopic world living in and on us until the 1860s when Louis Pasteur developed the Germ Theory. This breakthrough of medical knowledge turned the medical world on its head and paved the way for modern antibiotics.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that Paul Ehrlich, a German physician, theorized that it was possible to kill certain bacteria while leaving other microorganisms untouched.
In 1909, he discovered a chemical, arsphenamine, that acted as an effective treatment against syphilis. Some see this as the first modern antibiotic, though Ehrlich, himself, referred to it as “chemotherapy.”
I’m sure few people of the time cared about the semantics. They were just thrilled that syphilis was finally treatable.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered, by accident, what is more widely seen as the first modern antibiotic: penicillin. When Fleming returned to his home from holiday, he saw that he had left a plate of staphylococcus—the bacteria that causes staph infections—uncovered.
Luckily, though, he didn’t contract an infection. Instead, he discovered that a fungus, penicillium notatum, had contaminated the staph infection plate, leaving bacteria free zones wherever it grew. From there, Fleming developed penicillin.
Next time a college student claims their petri dish of a minifridge is a science experiment, maybe you should believe them.
The impact of penicillin was so massive that it became known as “the wonder drug.” Its use in disasters like the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston to prevent infections during skin grafts caught the notice of the U.S. government.
Government funding helped speed up the mass production of penicillin. By the end of World War II, medics and doctors were using penicillin on wounded soldiers. Once again, penicillin proved incredibly successful in lowering the rate of infections.
Penicillin’s success was enough to catch the interest of medical companies worldwide. Their development of antibiotics led to a wide range becoming easily available. Think amoxycillin, azithromycin, and, now, four different types of penicillin.
Nowadays, antibiotics are a common part of medical treatment. Infections ranging from a stomach bug, strep throat, and ear infections—all of which once caused irreparable physical damage or death—are now easily treated.
How It Works
Antibiotics are like miniscule hunters. On a basic level, when you take an antibiotic, you are releasing a substance that takes out bacteria. These cellular stalkers, though, come in different varieties and work according to different methods.
Just like there are hunters who specialize in hunting different animals and others who shoot what they can get, so too do antibiotics. There are specialized antibiotics, called narrow-spectrum, and general antibiotics, called broad-spectrum.
Narrow-spectrum antibiotics only work against certain bacteria, like a hunter who specializes in duck hunting. This is why your doctor may prescribe you different antibiotics for an ear infection than they do for a stomach bug. You wouldn’t expect a duck hunter to go after bears, would you?
Broad-spectrum antibiotics are the multipurpose bacteria killers. They kill a wide range of bacteria. While this may be good if the bacteria infecting you is unknown or if the infection involves different types, general antibiotics can also be harmful. They kill bacteria that are beneficial to us, as well.
Studies have shown that broad spectrum antibiotics can lead to more side effects than their narrow-spectrum equivalents. It has also been shown that taking broad-spectrums when they are not needed can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Just as hunters have their preferred method—gun or bow—narrow- and broad-spectrum antibiotics have different methods, too.
Some antibiotics, like the wonder drug penicillin, kill bacteria by attacking its cell walls. This keeps the bacteria from producing the molecules it needs to structure the layer of protection that allows it to live in the human body.
Other antibiotics work by messing with DNA replication in bacteria. This effectively prohibits the bacteria from reproducing, making it much easier for your body’s natural defenses to take care of the infection.
Though antibiotics have gone a long way to reduce the risk of damage and death from infections, they are not foolproof. As I mentioned before, it is possible for bacteria to evolve and not be affected by the antibiotics. When these bacteria reproduce they pass on their immunity to the antibiotic.
This, in effect, creates new types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Imagine, animals that evolved to withstand bullets.
There’s no question that antibiotics changed the course of medical history and saved the lives of countless people. Before the advent of antibiotics, diseases and infections that now only cause a couple days off work used to strike fear into the hearts of millions.
Antibiotics have saved humanity from some of the worst effects diseases have ravaged upon us. But antibiotics now find themselves in an evolutionary war with the bacteria they are designed to kill. More and more antibiotics are rendered useless due to changes in bacteria.
Some experts say that this trend is tied to the dropping rate of antibiotic development. This field of thought claims that antibiotic resistance was common right from the get-go. The difference from now is that there was sufficient drug development to allow doctors to switch treatment easily.
Modern day antibiotic development is held back by factors like lack of financial backing, regulatory hurdles too high to overcome, and scientific knowledge falling behind. After all, no one said it was easy to come up with new drugs.
An opposing school of thought claims that this view is too narrow. The argument pits the age-old germ theory against the lesser-known terrain theory.
While germ theory focuses on specific germs as the cause of disease and infection and how to use medicine to kill them, terrain theory takes a wider view of all the microbes that live on us.
Physiologist Claude Bernard, one of the first proponents of terrain theory, held that the overall ecosystem of the body was more important than the specific germs within it. He considered questions like why some people who are exposed to the same pathogens contract diseases and infections while others don’t.
The terrain theory claims that maintaining a proper balance of all the micro-organisms in and on your body is more important than developing drugs to target just one bad agent.
One thing that both schools of thought have in common, though, is that reducing our dependence on antibiotics is an effective solution to this problem.
Doctors have already started cutting back on antibiotic use. Modern western medicine, with its focus on the study and eradication of disease, is starting to incorporate more holistic elements commonly found in other medical thought.
While the history of antibiotics has been lifesaving, the future of antibiotics still remains unclear. It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that the interaction of our microbial guests and their relationship to us is just as important as human interactions and our relationship to forces bigger than us.
After all, as a wise man once said, life is a fractal.