Filed under: futurism, science fiction, Speculation, Uncategorized | Tags: future, science fiction, Speculation
First off, I wanted to share a neat video from Bad Astronomy, showing just how, and how fast, bacteria evolve. Yes, this is evolution in action, captured on a video. Share it with your creationist frenemies. Isn’t the 21st Century awesome?
And now, a thought experiment: normally, when we think of a science fictional future, it contains antibiotics, either explicitly or more generally, implicitly. Antibiotics are routine, not just for treating infections, but more importantly for treating wounds such as you would get from surgery. Anything involving a transplant, a replacement, or even opening up the body goes much better if there’s a course of antibiotics afterwards to clear up whatever bacteria got into the wounds that the surgeons made.
It’s not news that antibiotics are ephemeral products, and that the more we use them, the faster they become ineffective. They knew that when they commercialized penicillin. My question is, what would an antibiotic-free future look like? Especially one that is high-tech?It’s not something I’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about, so I’m posing it as a thought experiment. What do you think?
Obviously there are substitutes, like bacteriophage viruses, that can partially take the place of antibiotics. The problem is that they’re more complicated to use. Bacteriophages are used in hospitals now, but to have them replace broad-spectrum antibiotics, you not only need a lot more of them, you need both an active phage-industrial complex to grow them and keep creating new phages to deal with the rapidly evolving bacteria (see the video above), and you also need much more sophisticated (and rapid) diagnostic tests so that you know which phage cocktail to dose a patient with so that the viruses can kill the bacteria. It’s worth realizing that the CRISPR technology is based on a bacterial defense against viruses, so all we’re doing with phage therapies is interfering in a 4 billion year-old war to favor the viruses over the bacteria for a short time on a particular evolutionary battlefield, otherwise known as the patient’s body.
In any case, I don’t think bacteriophages will exactly substitute for antibiotics, any more than I think electric cars will exactly substitute for gas guzzlers. Life will change if antibiotics go away. What will an antibiotic free society look like? For one, we can kiss any idea of cyberpunk goodbye (you want to wire a cell phone to your brain without antibiotics?). What else? Will this affect issues around sustainability, that other semi-mythical future we’re all hoping will happen?
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