Science fiction should pay more attention to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and other "super bugs," argues M.G. Ellington at the Science In My Fiction blog. And one of the main breeding grounds for these super bugs may be space.
I've been toying with several ideas for my début entry. Last week I settled on super bugs. I came down with strep throat on Tuesday and had a doctor confirm it for me Thursday. The irony is not lost on me. Super bugs are antibiotic resistant bacteria. Several common super bugs include Staph aureus, GAS (Group A Streptococcus,) Clostridium difficile, E. coli, and Salmonella. If I was a lone white blood cell, I'd hate to meet any of these in a dark artery.
These microorganisms mutate and in doing so survive the antimicrobials. The mutation is then passed along to offspring in an elegant evolution that leaves microbiologists and other scientists fighting to keep up. Staph infections are an excellent case study when it comes to this. Each time a strain has been discovered to resist a particular antibiotic, a new antibiotic has been developed to combat the strain. The strain then evolves and becomes resistant to the new antibiotic. Staphylococcus aureus was proven resistant in 1947 to penicillin and then treated with methicillin. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was first documented in 1961. Not only is it resistant to methicillin but also penicillin, tetracycline, and erythromycin. A treatment course of vancomycin became the norm. The staphylococcus aureus developed a strain to resist this course of treatment by the late 1990s. This timeline appears in detail in the Wikipedia entry linked above.
Antibiotics are not the only method employed to fight staphylococcus aureus. Hand washing and sanitizing campaigns have been publicized and are especially visible at hospitals where these infections are most prevalent. Touch surfaces are places that the public handles en mass such as railings and door knobs.
The antimicrobial qualities of copper alloys are part of the reason so many of the surfaces are made out of brass or bronze. There is also a long history of utilizing silver in this capacity that dates back to ancient Egyptians. Hospitals have been using silver-based coatings in vents and on surfaces to kill bacteria and fungus. One such coating is produced by AgION Technologies, Inc. They also add it to athletic products, business supplies, and door knobs. Biochemists from the University of Florida designed a microbicidal coating that adheres to bandages, wound dressings, socks, hospital gowns, and beddings.
Bathing trauma patients daily using cloths containing the antiseptic chlorhexidine may be associated with a decreased rate of colonization and infection by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other difficult-to-treat bacteria , according to a report in the March issue of Archives of Surgery.
- "Antiseptic Cloths Associated With Reduced Rate of Treatment-Resistant Bacteria in the Trauma Center." ScienceDaily 17 March 2010.
Ok so I've talked a bit about super bugs, their evolution, and some of the advances in combating the microorganisms. How do super bugs fit in science fiction? In the scope of my reading, I find they most often surface as a catalyst. The super bugs bring about a biological apocalypse. Stephen King's The Stand is a great example of this. "Project Blue" was a biological weapon, a super flu virus that killed over 99% of the population. What about the strain of bacteria that causes humans to exhibit symptoms of vampirism in Richard Matheson's I am Legend? The novel is considered influential in starting the zombie genre; bacterial and viral strains are often indicated as the cause for zombie outbreaks. It even runs in reverse, the Martian invasion was halted in H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds by terrestrial pathogenic bacteria. On television the BBC is running the second season of Survivors. A virulent form of influenza, "The European Flu," is cast as the killer of millions. However TimesOnline said that culprit might not fly but instead suggests a stronger stand-in such as H5N1; H1N1 had not made it's appearance by the time the article was published discussing season one.
In addition to those kinds of stories, I'd like to see more about pandemic prevention thanks to antimicrobial clothing. Currently we have fabric softener that releases a scent throughout the day. Couldn't we have clothing that could provide a barrier from super bugs as part of our every day wardrobe? I'd love to see how epidemics can't spread to towns that are predominantly constructed using materials that are environmentally conscious and consist of microbicidal materials. Some plastics like this are already being used in daycare as well as many gyms.
Or to go in a different direction, consider the places in which super bugs might be breeding, evolving in the wild such as waste water treatment plants. If not waste treatment, how about a space flight for a perfect breeding ground?
Image via Impact Lab.