The Evolution of Superbugs

By Guest Author 23/09/2014 is running guest posts from some of the Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan Awards 2014 finalists. In this guest post, Siska Falconer from  Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu tackles the science behind superbugs.

Scientist predict that antibiotics will be ineffective in less than 10 years.  Imagine ten years on with no antibiotics for infections, infectious diseases, sicknesses or for operations.  When penicillin was first discovered by Sir Fleming in the early twentieth century, it symbolised a major breakthrough in medicine and has saved countless lives.  Unfortunately, the bacteria antibiotics are primed to destroy have rapidly evolved in order deal with this threat to their existence, becoming ‘superbugs’.   As announced to the public recently “…the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” Dr Keiji Fukuda, World Health Organisation’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security.1  Due to the need for new, more costly antibacterial agents and increased hospital stays as a result of this issue, antibacterial resistance poses a significant burden to the health system in New Zealand and worldwide. Population densities, migration and relatively easy world travel mean antibiotic resistance spreads rapidly, making it a global as well as a local issue.

The Science behind the Superbugs

Bacteria rapidly evolve, aiding the development of unique mutations, such as antibiotic resistance (ABR).  When these bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the susceptible species are supplanted by more resistant strains. Natural selection favours these resistant bacteria, enabling them to survive and reproduce, having a higher survival rate.  The resistant strains are able to encode the resistant genes onto transferrable plasmids and transposons.

One example of ABR is over one million people worldwide are infected with gonorrhoea daily, an STD which was once able to be effectively cured using penicillin.  However, it has been confirmed in at least ten countries (these are not third world countries) last resort antibiotic treatments have failed – gonorrhoea is now unable to be easily treated in these countries.2

The Solution

To control ABR will require a cutting back of unnecessary use, allowing science desperately needed time to develop new drugs and/or alternative treatments. My idea to combat ABR is that every doctors surgery, every hospital ward, every health care provider, every school, should have a poster on the wall targeting different groups in society, educating them on the importance of only taking antibiotics when necessary, and if taking antibiotics then completing the full course once started. A nationwide educational campaign is required: television, papers, schools, and the workplace –we all need to be involved.  Pharmacists need to give an explanation, along within an information sheet, with every antibiotic prescription given out; the community need to be educated against expecting a quick fix from their health care provider via antibiotics, society continue to be educated that viral infections do not respond to antibiotics such as flu or a cold; and we all need to complete our prescribed medications and not save them for the next time you get unwell, or share them with other people, or take another person’s antibiotics; as this way we can all majorly help prevent a global epidemic of superbugs. I don’t want this in my home, my community, my nation, my world, and I’m sure you don’t either, so let’s start now – change our culture together and let’s be a world leader in respecting antibiotics.

Superbugs: what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger

Siska Falconer is completing her Year 13 NCEA with Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu.  She has applied for First Year Health Science at Auckland University in 2015, planning to study Medicine, her scientific interests are: Biology, Chemistry, and Research.


  1. WHO’s first global report on antibiotic resistance reveals serious, worldwide threat to public health.
  2. WHO report 2011