Viral Video Shows How Frighteningly Fast Bacteria Can Evolve

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In this frame from a Harvard Medical School video, bacteria grows on a "mega-plate" petri dish. (Harvard Medical School via Vimeo)
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Health experts have warned about the growing risks people face as bacteria increasingly become resistant to antibiotics.

A team led by Professor Roy Kishony of Harvard Medical School and Technion Israel Institute of Technology found a way to show just how quickly bacteria can evolve to be resistant, and their video has gone viral.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with postdoctoral fellow Michael Baym about how he made the video, and what the team hopes to accomplish with its research.

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Interview Highlights: Michael Baym

On how antibiotic resistance develops

“What happens is that most of the bacteria are very sensitive to antibiotics. As they get to the front, there are a few mutants in that population that can survive just a little bit more. Those are able to move ahead of the rest of the bacteria and spread out to the point where they no longer and survive and then mutants in that population can move ahead again and by this process of successively gaining mutations that give a little more and a little more antibiotics resistance, we end up with enormous amounts of resistance in a very, very short amount of time.”

On the experiment’s conclusions

“There are a couple of reasons why it would happen much much faster here than in the real world. One of the main ones is there’re a lot of bacteria there and the plate’s basically bacteria Disneyland. They have all the nutrients they need to survive and grow and no immune system trying to kill them. So you could get an enormous population that don’t have to worry about all of these other factors that bacteria need to deal with in the real world. The hope is that this same pass ways that give resistance to antibiotics in the real world would show up in this dish and allow us to study those productively and carefully in a much shorter period of time.

We can never stop bacteria from mutating. They’re going to evolve no matter what we do. The hope is that if we can understand the way that they’re going to evolve, we can come up with treatments that predict this and anticipate it and hopefully avoid the evolution of more resistance to the extent possible.”

On surprises in the findings

“I think there’s definitely been other experiments where people have seen evolution that fast, maybe even faster. But what was really surprising was the consistency with which it happened. The two sides of this plate, they don’t talk to each other. They don’t know that the other one’s there, yet they tie. There’s sort of a race and they get there at the same time. And we run the experiment again and it takes the same amount of time. And I think one of the real surprises wasn’t the speed but the consistency.”

Guest

Michael Baym, postdoctoral fellow at the Kishony Lab at Harvard Medical School. He tweets @baym.

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