Bacteria from the permafrost of the Yukon Territory has been revived and coaxed to reveal its secrets. A team from McMaster University has re-discovered the phenomenon of ancient antibiotic resistance and demonstrated it in a new direct way.
Pathogens resistant to antibiotics survive and take over, causing many difficult-to-treat infections.
Antibiotic resistance has long been a problem, especially in hospital settings where lots of antibiotics are used. Pathogens resistant to antibiotics survive and take over, causing many difficult-to-treat infections. Many claim that antibiotic resistance is the observable proof of evolution. But are bacteria really evolving?
Back in 1988, explorers frozen in 1845 were autopsied at the University of Alberta, and six strains of bacteria isolated from their colons were revived. According to microbiologist Dr. Kinga Kowalewska-Grochowska, “Three of them also happen to be resistant to antibiotics. In this case, the antibiotics clindamycin and cefoxitin, both of which were developed more than a century after the men died, were among those used.” 1
Now researchers have gone a step further. They have isolated bacterial DNA from Ice Age permafrost2 and found genes coding for resistance to several classes of antibiotics, including β-lactams, tetracycline, and glycopeptide antibiotics.3
Then, focusing on the genes encoding vancomycin resistance, they recreated those gene products in the lab. The three enzymes thus produced worked together to resist vancomycin in the same way as their modern counterparts.4 They conclude, “Antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon that predates the modern selective pressure of clinical antibiotic use.”5
So how did the bacteria already have suitable weapons years before their enemy was invented? Antibiotics and their antidotes are actually natural substances produced by fungi, algae, and bacteria. Dr. Gerry Wright explains, “Antibiotics are part of the natural ecology of the planet so when we think that we have developed some drug that won't be susceptible to resistance or some new thing to use in medicine, we are completely kidding ourselves. . . . Microorganisms have figured out a way of how to get around them well before we even figured out how to use them.” He adds, “Antibiotics are remarkable resources that need to be carefully husbanded.”6
Some of this genetic material is in a form that can be transferred to other microorganisms. Microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy, who has warned of profligate use of antibiotics for 30 years, explains, “What had been missed in the 1960s and 1970s was the ease with which resistance could appear,” he said. “Bacteria share these genes like baseball cards with each other.”7
So is antibiotic resistance the poster-child of evolution? No. There was a time when people thought bacteria evolve resistance because they “need” to. But—as demonstrated in this study and in the 1988 one—the variations and mutations that confer resistance are already in the genomes of some bacteria. The “resistance information” does not necessarily develop in response to the antibiotic threat. Natural selection allows resistant bacteria to survive and reproduce, replenishing the bacterial population. And those surviving bacteria are still bacteria—the same kind of bacteria they were all along.
Antibiotic resistance not only fails to prove the evolution of new kinds of organisms but actually demonstrates our Creator’s wisdom. We believe that God provided many mobile bits of information8 to enable microorganisms to survive and fulfill their complex ecological roles. Changing conditions in the post-Fall world have allowed helpful bacteria to become dangerous (see The Genesis of Pathogenic E. coli). A combination of mutations, horizontally transferred genes, environmental changes, and host changes can transform harmless microorganisms into pathogens. Frankly, from an evolutionary point of view, killing the host is a particularly bad idea! Biblical understanding explains the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance.
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