Health tips: Thank you for bacterial antibiotics


This Thanksgiving, consider being medically grateful for bacterial antibiotics. It is appropriate to do so because antibiotics have made, and continue to make, our lives much longer and better than before they were discovered in plants. They alleviate suffering and prevent death, when and where they are available. They are not as accessible in many parts of the world as in the United States

We have decided that bacteria belong to the plant kingdom. All organisms, plants or animals, including us, are in this existence together, both in harmony and in conflict. The concept that substances from one organism can kill another organism (antibiosis – against life) dates back more than 2,500 years to the Chinese, who discovered and regularly applied the therapeutic properties of moldy soybean curd to boils, to anthrax and other infections. (Don’t try this at home!)

The first “modern” researchers to recognize that certain microbes can produce antibiotics against other insects were Pasteur and Joubert in 1877. They discovered that anthrax bacteria would not grow in the presence of “common” bacteria, either in urine culture or when both were injected into animals. We associate the start of the “antibiotic era” with Paul Erlich, who discovered an arsenic compound in 1904 through systematic research that killed the bacterial spirochete responsible for syphilis, Treponema pallidum.

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The next antibiotic step was taken when Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory after a vacation in 1928 and discovered that the mold Penicillium notatum had accidentally contaminated an open Staphylococcus culture plate and killed the bacteria. It took Fleming 12 years to interest chemists in isolating penicillin and mass-producing it, which finally happened in 1941. The first mass-produced antibiotic was sulfanilamide under the brand name Prontosil in the mid-1930s The arrival of penicillin ushered in the golden age of antibiotics. Since then, between 100 and 200 have arrived, and some have left.

Thanks to abundant medication choices, we no longer tremble when we have a boil in the middle of the face, which caused death 30% of the time before antibiotics. Hardly anyone today has recurring ear infections that eat away at the mastoid bone and cause a chronic abscess that requires major surgery. Very few have such sinus infections that require the formidable Caldwell-Luck drainage surgery. An infected toe or finger can be cured with antibiotics and prevent amputation or potential death.

We have in no way “defeated” the bacteria. The bug battles continue. Many breeds have developed resistance to several antibiotics. Yet new antibiotics keep appearing in different forms, such as chains of proteins called peptides, or revisited old drugs, or bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, and so on.

We are constantly trying to maintain some biological balance with our invisible parasitic partners who outnumber us perhaps 10 to 1 in this dog-eat-dog/insect-eat/insect-kill world. We should thank the fact that antibiotics have helped us regain some of that balance and allowed us to live longer with far less misery. (I heard bacteria means the back door of a cafeteria…) Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, has worked since 1978 in Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua and Red Wing. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and some Dixieland bands. And he appreciates a good pun.


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