As a human living in the 21st century, you have most probably heard of the antibiotic crisis, one of the biggest threats that we collectively face in the public health scene. As terrifying as it is to think that the medication we once thought to be a miracle cure may one day become obsolete, we can rest assured that researchers are working tirelessly to find solutions to the drug resistance problem. Whether it be through changing our infection control policies or evaluating the use of live organisms to attack bacteria, professionals are examining the problem from every avenue. However, researchers from the McGill Centre for Structural Biology are looking at bacteria in a different light. Some keys to addressing this issue may not lie in the living world, but on our computer screens.
Infectious disease was the leading cause of death in North America in the 19th century. Strep throat could be fatal, and ear infections were often uncontrollable, spreading to the brain. When antibiotics were discovered nearly 100 years ago by Canadian Alexander Flemming, communicable diseases became, for the most part, more of an inconvenience than a death sentence. The huge success of antibiotics, however, is currently being overshadowed by the phenomenon that is drug resistance. Our overuse of these drugs has led to the selection of stronger, more sophisticated bacteria that can survive antibiotic treatment. And if we don’t tackle this issue soon, the implications could be drastic.
Bacteria is a unique organism in that it stores genetic information in plasmids, which can spread from cell to cell. At the McGill Centre for Structural Biology, some researchers are examining the pathways through which information coding for antibiotic resistance travels, and the factors that affect how frequently this information can travel. And they’re doing it in the coolest and most efficient way possible: through online simulations.
By introducing different mutations to mobile genetic elements present in bacteria, it’s possible to program these elements and view how they interact with DNA. Using computers alone, we can see how these mutations affect the rate at which information can travel from one bacterial cell to the next. Although this work may not yield a solution to the antibiotic crisis, it can provide some very usable insight into how we might go about addressing it!
Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol.49 Issue 09 on February 12th, 2020