Okay, nobody panic, but scientists have found a stash of bacteria that have never had contact with humans, but are resistant to antibiotics anyway. If this happened in a movie, this would probably end with everyone becoming dead. But I’m sure it’s fine!
The bacteria in Lechuguilla Cave, in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Cavern National Park, have been isolated from the surface world for 4 to 7 million years. But the majority of the 93 strains isolated by researchers were resistant to multiple antibiotics — some strains were immune to as many as 14 kinds of commercially available drugs. And some of their methods of resistance had never been seen before. The clear implication: Some bacteria evolve the ability to foil human-made antibiotics, even when they’ve never been exposed.
That doesn’t mean we should start giving antibiotics to farm animals willy-nilly, on the theory that resistance was natural all along. (Or, rather, we already do this, but it doesn’t mean we should start feeling good about it.) Long-term, low-level exposure to antibiotics will still breed new superbugs, and will probably still make us all die. It just turns out that we might all die anyway. Even if we bury all our pork in a cave for 4 million years.
Here’s the good news: Scientists theorize that the Lechuguilla bacteria may have evolved novel natural antibiotics in order to outcompete each other, which would account for high levels of resistance in the successful strains. This means it’s possible that the naturally antibiotic-resistant bacteria could give us the tools to defeat strains like MRSA, which have become antibiotic-resistant through overexposure to pharmaceuticals. We might actually be able to put the bacteria’s innate badassery to work.
Until then, though, try to stay away from ancient caves, and modern pig farms, and hospitals, and maybe hang out inside a plastic bubble just to be safe.
Ancient antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in isolated cave, CBC.
Antibiotic Resistance Is Prevalent in an Isolated Cave Microbiome, PLoS ONE.