As some of you may know, every month, I have the honour of being a guest on the Ward and Al Show on SiriusXM Canada Talks (Channel 167). For the hour, I get to talk about the wonderful world of science with the hosts…
Ward Anderson and Alison Dore
I adore them because they have an incredible interest in science but more importantly, how to make the strange world of the lab come alive in the public realm.
We normally talk about headlines of the day and sure enough, last Monday, the topic turned to antibiotic resistance. It’s been featured quite often over the last few weeks as a crisis looms over our ability to fight infectious disease. We may even enter what is known as…
The Post-Antibiotic Era.
Almost sounds like something from a comic book, doesn’t it? Well, when the subject turned to what exactly antibiotic resistance looks like, there was no better place to turn than the comic book world. Or, in this case, movie trailer.
Last week, the new Batman vs Superman trailer was unveiled and it is quite the experience. But there’s an interesting scene contained within the three minutes that has many a fan talking. Head to about 2:20 and watch for the next twenty seconds.
The monster is known as Doomsday and has the potential to wipe out an entire city block with one burst of incredible molecular energy. As you can see in the trailer, he’s pretty good at it and can cause some major devastation. For Batman, this appears to be a certain demise.
He lives thanks to the introduction of an even more powerful shield donned by none other than Wonder Woman. Thanks to her, the Caped Crusader is saved and the world is introduced to yet another superhero. Even more intriguing is her appearance was not chaperoned by either Batman or Superman. She somehow appeared out of nowhere and ended up saving the day…at least for the Dark Knight.
It’s a pretty fun scene although at first glance, this seems to have little to do with antibiotic resistance. Let me explain…
First off, antibiotics, while chemical in nature, are very similar to that energy burst from Doomsday. All targets, bacteria and human cells are affected and many end up getting wiped out (yes, even our human cells can fall victim). Not to mention, the landscape after an antibiotic treatment is devastated. For a sensitive bacterium in the midst of the onslaught, death is a certainty. As Martha Stewart might say…
(Yes, I went there)
Now, if a bacterium somehow develops resistance to an antibiotic, it has in effect picked up that shield and can survive the attack. The shield could be a barrier or in some cases it could be a mechanism to break down the molecular energy rendering the antibiotic useless. Either way, the carrier of the shield – and in many cases, those in the immediate vicinity – are saved and given the chance to fight another day.
As we all know, leaving an embittered entity in the middle of a wasteland can lead to even more troubles. For anyone suffering from an antibiotic resistant infection, they know this well. The bacteria grow without hesitation and in many cases end up producing even greater troubles thanks to toxins and other attacking chemicals.
Because of their ability to resist and eventually cause troubles, we tend to call these bacteria…
In light of this particular trailer, though, I wonder if we may need to re-examine this term.
Think about this: in the midst of Doomsday’s energy, Superman would have been just fine. He could handle the burst in the same way he seems to be relatively invincible. Granted, there are some things that could hurt and possibly kill him (Kryptonite, anyone?) but in general, he’s pretty much unstoppable.
Batman, on the other hand, was a sitting duck. Without any type of resistance, he was surely a goner. But thanks to the arrival of the Amazing Amazon, he was given a chance to embrace the protection. Of course, if she didn’t have that shield, she would have joined her human counterpart as a victim rather than a survivor.
If you look at antibiotic resistant bacteria, they are nothing like Superman. Even if they could resist to all antibiotics – we call them pan resistant – they most likely can be killed with good ol’ fashioned soap and water. They are physically feeble and incredibly dependent on water, food, and a welcoming environment. They are not super by any means. They simply have the weapons and defenses to keep them alive in the harshest climes. So why call them Superbugs?
Okay, I know it’s not all that important what they are called. It’s just a fancy name for a particular group of bacteria. But in light of what we now know about their biology, biochemistry, and activities in various environments, including development or acquisition of resistance, perhaps it’s time for a change in perspective and in name.
Of course, choosing a new moniker may not be easy. If we adopt the same superlative as the female shield bearer, we end up with…
Not to mention, there already is a wonder bug out there in the form of a car with a magical horn. If you can remember…
…you are definitely over forty.
While “Wonderbugs” may not be the best choice to call antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we still need to examine a different nickname.
I think a better option would be to use a term based on their characteristics. Let’s focus on the reality and leave out the superlatives. We don’t have to be academic either as there’s apparently no harm in creativity. After all, we are in a world where the Son of Yeezus is called Saint (if you don’t know what that means, you are probably over forty). I am sure we can find a good balance between science and the public.
So, with that in mind, let’s see if we can come up with a better name for antibiotic resistant bacteria than “Superbugs.” If we find one we all enjoy, we might even make it spread like a virus (which by the way is not affected by antibiotics) and become adopted in the public.
I’ll start by suggesting what I would love these bacteria to be called:
(Antibiotic Resistant Microbes Of Relevance)
The first part is self-explanatory. But the second offers perspective on the importance of antibiotic resistance in our lives. After all, resistance is rampant in the environment but many of these species with shields are harmless to us and pose no threat to our health or medicine. All together, it makes for a very good and scientifically accurate name to reflect the mechanism of antibiotic resistance. I’m sure even superheroes would love the term.
Now it’s your turn. What is your suggestion to replace “Superbugs”?
Hope to hear your thoughts…