Scientists find that all 93 strains of bacteria collected from deep inside Lechuguilla Cave at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico are already resistant to at least one of the antibiotics we use to fight infections.
No place on Earth demonstrates the resilience or inventiveness of life quite like Lechuguilla Cave, whose subterranean tunnels stretch for 130 miles through Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
Deep in the cave’s most arid recesses, deprived of all sunlight and mostly starved of life-giving water, a lush garden of bacteria grows. Untouched by humans for all of their 4 million years, these strains of bacteria thrive on the harsh minerals of the geological formations to which they cling and fend off other life forms that would prey on them.
It is a simple life. But new research suggests it could tell us volumes about the medicines doctors rely upon to combat infection and why, increasingly, they are failing.
Scientists who collected 93 strains of bacteria from the forbidding depths of Lechuguilla found that all were resistant to at least one of the antibiotics that modern medicine uses to fight bacterial infections and some were resistant to at least 14. In addition, virtually all of the 26 antibiotics tested as part of the study proved useless in killing at least one of the strains of bacteria collected.
That these life forms evolved in ways that appear to anticipate medicines attests to bacteria’s remarkable powers of survival. It also suggests that the rise in antibiotic- resistant diseases isn’t due entirely to the runaway use of these drugs; rather, try as you might to kill them, bacteria are programmed to endure.
“It’s awe-inspiring,” said Gerard D. Wright, a microbiologist from the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University in Canada and senior author of the study, which was published online Wednesday by the journal PLoS ONE. “It gives you real respect for the genetic diversity and the ability of these organisms to evade toxic molecules.”
The study appeared on the same day that the Food and Drug Administration announced it would ask drug makers and veterinarians to drastically reduce the widespread use of antibiotics to promote the growth of commercial livestock. And it suggests that while such measures may slow the rate at which infectious diseases gain the upper hand against medicines, they cannot stop that process.