Bacterial sex: the promiscuous process driving antibiotic resistance

(T.E. Schindler/ Stat News) — Formidable sexual promiscuity. That’s not the teaser for a pornographic video but a serious health threat that humans face. It’s the term microbiologists use to describe bacterial sex, the ancient process that contributes to the very modern scourge of antibiotic resistance, which could account for 10 million deaths a year by 2050.

Bacteria and fungi created natural antibiotics eons before drug companies turned them into medicines. To counter these natural microbe killers, bacteria and other microbes also created fiendishly effective antibiotic-resistance mechanisms long before humans started pumping antibiotics into humans and livestock. While overuse of antibiotics has been fingered as the driver of resistance to these drugs, the contribution of bacterial sex plays an underappreciated role, one that could bedevil efforts to fight antimicrobial resistance.

I’m a microbiologist by training, and I continue to be fascinated by all things microbial. For the past four years, I have been working on a biography of Esther Lederberg. With her husband, Joshua Lederberg, and their colleagues, she turned the light on bacterial sex 70 years ago, work that continues to inform our understanding of bacterial genetics and antimicrobial resistance today. (…)

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