A new study reports several bacterial strains isolated from New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave, shut away for over four million years, are resistant to up to fourteen different commercially available antibiotics.
The implications are profound. At the risk of the overdramatic, they speak to the nature of our very existence, as well as, more practically, our relationship and responses to the pathogens that feed on us.
The horror of many a pathogen isn’t just that they can ‘think’ by an emergent cognition, or in how they outwit us by way of a near-ontological Hegelian dialectic, daily evolving resistance not only to every drug we’ve ever designed but every one we will design. It’s that, if the cave bacteria are any indication, they outfox us in the course of solving some other problem entirely.
We are no vanquished competition. We are a speed bump on the road elsewhere. Our medical advances, a geochronological fleck, are routinely flicked aside with exaptations of a billion-year-old molecular Bauplan. However ingenious humanity may be, there ain’t a R&D budget that can bust that problem.
There is, however, an ironic hope in there. The characterization puts the onus back on us. Without denying pathogens their agency or historicity, if many are only passing through a hyperdimensional ecological niche space, agnostic to our suffering, our worst outbreaks largely arise out of the world as we have made it.
By pills and pushes alone we try wrangling what in fact has already wrangled us. Our microbiomes, our immune systems, our very cells and DNA, after all, are structured by parasitic artifacts. We’d do better in putting our socio-ecological houses in order, by multilevel interventions and ecological resilience, by a sociality that sees people before commodities, finessing from bug to bug an epidemiological detente.
And yet, incredibly, with the ancient and intrinsic failure of our present approaches literally scrawled in genetic code across the cave wall–Belshazzar’s resistome–the study is instead spun as another bulk order for the pharmaceutical industry,
While this may sound like bad news, the researchers explain that finding isolated, drug-resistant bacteria actually is a good thing. They say it suggests there are many types of previously unknown, naturally-occurring antibiotics in the environment that can be developed for doctors to use against currently untreatable infections.