Antibiotics are failing us on a catastrophic scale. Once a magic bullet against infectious diseases, they’ve grown increasingly impotent as bacteria have evolved resistance. An estimated 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and within a few decades, that toll may rise to several million.
Yet this catastrophe is strangely invisible. You can’t see the onslaught of resistant bacteria advance on cities like a forest fire. Their victims don’t die on a battlefield, instead quietly expiring in hospital rooms. This invisibility makes it hard for scientists to monitor antibiotic resistance, and it also makes it difficult to motivate people to do something about the problem.
Roy Kishony, a biologist at the Technion in Israel and a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues Michael Baym and Tami Lieberman, have found a way to make this catastrophe astonishingly visible. They’ve built a gigantic variation of a Petri dish, which they call the MEGA (Microbial Evolution and Growth Arena) plate, where you can observe the evolution of antibiotic resistance in a series of bursting waves. It’s so eminently viewable, in fact, that the MEGA plate video has been watched almost 25 million times since it was posted online in September.
In this episode of “Science Happens!”, Kishony and his colleagues build a MEGA plate for us and let us see how they make an invisible catastrophe visible. In the process, they are also learning lessons about the evolution of antibiotic resistance that they hope will help in the vital struggle to keep these drugs effective.