There are millions of organisms on the macroscopic scale, that is, organisms big enough that we can see them with our eyes, like animals and plants. Similarly, there are countless organisms on the microscopic level, meaning that we can’t see them using only our naked eyes. To know more about such microorganisms, we can only study them through a microscope or look at the effects of their activities.
Among some of these microscopic organisms are bacteria. They are spread out in nearly every place you can think of. From the insides of a human body to deep within the earth and the middle of the ocean, bacteria are everywhere. To get to it, what are bacteria, anyway? Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can perform a variety of functions. Single cellular or unicellular organisms are those organisms that are made up of only one cell (cell: the fundamental unit of all biological life). In comparison, our body parts, such as the heart and liver, are multicellular, meaning that they are made up of millions of cells. You might be able to imagine how small a bacterium (singular form of bacteria) must be by the fact that a single gram of dirt can contain up to 40 million bacterial cells.
Contrary to how the term ‘bacteria’ is understood and used in most social settings, bacteria are not always harmful. In fact, there are several bacteria that are needed for the existence of life. In the human body, for example, needs to digest the food we eat. Our bodies do this with the help of several bacteria, which break down complex structures such as sugars and other nutrients so they can be changed into energy. Other kinds of bacteria are needed to fight off diseases by fighting the intruding pathogens.
However, there are a lot of bacteria responsible for causing diseases, and which act as germs and cause harm to our bodies. Such bacteria can potentially prove fatal or cause severe damage to one’s health. Infections caused by bacteria include the E. coli bacterial food poisoning, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea and syphilis, strep throat, and many others.
In order to combat this kind of bacterial activity, medicines known as antibiotics have been in use for hundreds of years. Lots of antibiotics used to be obtained from natural sources. However, in the present day, most of them are manufactured artificially. Usually, our immune system is strong enough to keep us safe. But when bacteria seem to be overpowering our body’s defenses, antibiotics prove very helpful. Basically, antibiotics prevent the spread of infections by killing the bacteria or by causing them to stop reproducing and pausing their symptoms.
However, like all living things, bacteria can adapt pretty fast. Through continued exposure to the same drugs, bacteria can develop resistance to these drugs. Furthermore, these veteran bacteria can produce severe, and often untreatable, effects in a person’s body. In the U.S. alone, about 3 million people get affected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and up to 40, 000 people die per year.
A lot of work has been done to prevent antibiotic-resistant bacteria from spreading. They can become a huge problem in hospitals, for example. All it takes is one sick person to be admitted, and it is possible the bacteria can spread to other patients through a variety of routes. There are all sorts of new methods of sterilizing rooms and equipment, and routinely gathering samples from at-risk patients, so we can know early on if they catch a bacterial disease.
There are a lot of new antibiotics in development, but other possible treatments are also being studied, such as bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and kill bacteria but aren’t dangerous for us.
Research is also being conducted on how, exactly, bacteria can survive antibiotics. There are a lot of possible mechanisms, such as the bacteria using an enzyme (a substance that aids in a chemical reaction) to change the structure of the antibiotic, or being able to “spit” the antibiotic particles out of itself faster than they can get in, or mutating so that their molecules can no longer be recognized by the antibiotic. If we can get to understand these mechanisms, it’d be easier to try and develop new treatments that specifically target them.