Antibiotic resistance: an arms race going on millions of years

In 2012, a team of microbial scientists, curious about the origins of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, decided to take samples from the walls of a deep, ancient underground cave system beneath the modern US state of New Mexico. 

The maze-like complex of Lechuguilla cave stretches for more than 200 kilometres, and much of it is sealed from aboveground by an impermeable rock layer known as the Yates Formation. So, it was the perfect place to hunt for microbes unsullied by the modern world. 

What they found was both startling and spooky: the microbiome of the cave samples contained bacteria that were resistant to at least 14 different antibiotics currently on the market, even though they had been isolated for more than four million years.

Given that antibiotics were first used clinically after Alexander Fleming cultured Penicillium moulds in 1928, antibiotic resistance is generally thought of as a distinctly modern problem – and there’s no doubt our use and abuse of these wonder-molecules have created a huge and growing issue. 

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