Averting the Approaching Apocalypse

This post is a guest contribution by Dr. Levi Morran, NIH postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University. Levi studies the role that both coevolutionary relationships and mating systems play in shaping evolutionary trajectories. His research using experimental coevolution to test the Red Queen hypothesis recently appeared in Science and was featured on NPR and the BBC.

electron micrograph of the aerobic soil bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens(photo credit http://bacmap.wishartlab.com/organisms/500)

Electron micrograph of the aerobic soil bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens
(credit BacMap)

I’ll begin by acknowledging that the title of this entry is probably a bit more dramatic than it needs to be. Nonetheless it’s pretty catchy isn’t it?

Given that the human population seems to have survived that whole 2012 Mayan calendar thing without incident, I know several of my friends (I won’t name names, but you know I love you) that would immediately think about zombies upon reading this title.  However, I am not particularly concerned about the extinction of the human race at the hands of zombies. For one thing, I need more evidence (or in fact any evidence whatsoever) before I buy the whole “zombies will rise up and end us all” fear. Further, Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) has given us a hilarious and potentially mildly effective guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse. Ultimately I am far more concerned about bacteria. To avoid inducing mass panic, I’m not talking about a terrified level of concern here, but certainly concerned enough to give it some thought.

Why bacteria? Well, the human population is currently in an evolutionary arms race with many of the bacterial species that infect us.  We continue to hurl scores of antibiotics at bacterial infections, imposing very strong natural selection, with little regard for the evolution of antibiotic resistance in those bacterial populations. Using current strategies in medicine, we are forced to administer greater doses of drugs or develop novel antibiotics to combat infections as the bacteria evolve greater levels of resistance (Levy and Marshall 2004, Martinez et al. 2007). This is a vicious cycle. I believe it is time to develop new strategies of managing our pathogens and treating infections. Thankfully there are many people that agree and are conducting ground-breaking research in this area, like Andrew Read’s group at Penn State University.

A paper by Quan-Guo Zhang and Angus Buckling (2012) takes an experimental evolution approach to begin addressing this issue empirically. In search of a different strategy for curbing the evolution of antibiotic resistance in their experimental populations of the bacterial species Pseudomons flourences, Zhang and Buckling treated their bacterial populations with either antibiotics, a bacteriophage or “phage” (a virus that attacks bacteria), or a combination of the antibiotic and phage. Zhang and Buckling predicted that the combination treatment might be more effective than either antibiotics or phage alone because the combination treatments should better reduce bacterial population sizes and limit their response to selection (Alisky et al. 1998, Chanishvili 2001, Comeau 2007). Additionally, bacterial mutations that confer resistance to antibiotics generally do not also confer resistance to phage, so evolution of resistance to the combination treatments would likely require at least two mutations, and thus require more time to evolve resistance than the other treatments (Chanishvili 2001, Kutateladze 2010). Continue reading