Zombie Apocalypse? Million-Year-Old Bacterium Found Resistant To Most Antibiotics

First Posted: Dec 15, 2016 03:30 AM EST

Could people be facing a zombie apocalypse? A million-year-old bacteria has been found resistant to most antibiotics available today.

Paenibacillus (pronounced "penny-bacillus") is a million-year-old bug found resistant to 70 percent of antibiotics currently available. This is quite astonishing since the bacterium has been in isolation for more than 4 million years until now. The ancient bacterium was found 1,000 feet underground in Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. The cave is the deepest in the continental U.S.

According to scientists, the Paenibacillus developed its resistance due in part to the harsh conditions in the Lechuguilla Cave. The cave is so far underneath the earth, around 1,632 feet at its lowest point, that it lives in complete darkness. Water from the surface takes 10,000 years to reach the cave.

With these harsh conditions, bacteria found in the cave are constantly fighting each other in order to survive. This kind of bacteria battle royal had led Paenibacillus to develop a super strength natural antibiotic resistance mechanism. This just disproves the old model where it is believed that bacteria develop resistance after being exposed to drugs.

In an interview with NPR, Hazel Barton, one of the microbiologists who explored the Lechuguilla Cave and found Paenibacillus, says "It changed our understanding because it means antibiotic resistance didn't evolve in the clinic through our use. The resistance is hardwired."

Scientists study the Paenibacillus to understand the evolution and origin of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. By learning about the antibiotic resistance mechanism of the bacteria, scientists can predict, prevent and manage a global health problem.

In a report published in the journal Nature, the scientists also found out that natural antibiotic resistance mechanism is not unique to the Paenibacillus. All of the bacteria, environmental or man-made, have this ancient mechanism. This could be why pathogens, disease-causing bacteria, are able to develop resistance even after being exposed to intense antibiotic use.

Thankfully, due to the isolation of Paenibacillus, it has not been exposed yet to man-made bacteria and is still considered non-pathogenic. However, there is no assurance that the exposure of Paenibacillus, the "hero bug" as most scientists are calling it, to man-made bacteria would not cause it to turn pathogenic. Or, pathogenic bacteria exposed to the Paenibacillus could develop their antibiotic resistance mechanism to super levels.

Will the Paenibacillus stay a "hero bug" or will it turn to the dark side and become a super bug? Is this going to be the start of the zombie apocalypse?


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