Monday, December 16, 2013

antibiotics in crisis

When I started out writing about science, 20 years ago, I tended to end my articles on an optimistic note, along the lines of: now the molecular structure of this problem is known, surely a solution will soon materialise. How little did I know.

One of the solvable problems I wrote about nearly 20 years ago – and I have an article published in September 1994 to prove it – is the spread of antibiotics resistance. Now the existence of antibiotics resistance traits is natural and there isn’t much we can do about it, but their spread is greatly facilitated by two human activities, namely the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, where they are essentially used to speed up growth, and their misguided use in human patients, including pointless prescriptions by doctors, and inappropriate application by patients.

All that was very well known and recognised in the 1990s, so it was deeply distressing for me to find out from a recent report into the problem that antibiotics are still misused in agriculture in the US, and from own experience I know that some doctors still prescribe antibiotics when they very clearly shouldn’t, e.g. for a common cold.

So, well, the problem we’re facing today is that there are hardly any new antibiotics in the development pipeline, and the old ones we have are being squandered through systematic and long-running misuse which should have stopped 20 years ago but for some strange reason hasn’t.

In the US alone, 23,000 people per year are dying from antibiotic-resistant bugs, and the bottom line is most of these deaths could have been avoided if antibiotics misuse had been stopped in time. And this will get worse. Infectious diseases which we’ve almost forgotten are returning because of this.

It’s a very very depressing subject, but if you can bear to read more about it, there is a new feature out in Current Biology today:

Antibiotics in crisis

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 24, R1063-R1065, 16 December 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.057

full text and free access to PDF download

Extended spectrum beta-lactamase-producing strains of Enterobacteriaceae, including Klebsiella species and E. coli, are responsible for around 1,700 deaths per year in the US. (Photo: courtesy of CDC

Monday, December 09, 2013

dances with diatoms

German publications in November and December cover foaming proteins, dance your PhD, chemical elements you can by from Holland & Barrett, boron-boron triple bonds, and diatoms. Phew. I won't even try to conjure up a connection between these, apart from the byline. So here goes:

Tierischer Eischnee und andere Schäume
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1227-1229
(a feature in English covering the same ground is here)

Ausgeforscht: Elemente für den Hausgebrauch
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1307

Ausgeforscht: Tanze deine Diss
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1191

Kieselalgen: Weder Tier noch Pflanze, aber klimarelevant
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 368-374, DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201300621
abstract and restricted access to PDF download

Dreifachbindungen: Bor-Chemie im Aufwind
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 340
abstract and restricted access to PDF download

Monday, December 02, 2013

collapse ahead

Highly sophisticated societies have collapsed (i.e. lost a lot of of their complexity very quickly) in the past, and there is no reason why this couldn't happen to ours. In fact there are a few very good reasons to believe it will happen well within the 21st century, i.e. within the life-expectancy of everybody born in the richer countries from now on. (I do hope Mumsnet are reading this and can still turn things around!)

We're still wrecking the environment we depend on, and the financial crisis has shown how blindly we can run into a disaster, so, well, there may be interesting times ahead.

I've discussed all this in some detail in a feature that has appeared today:

Will our civilisation survive this century?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 23, R1017-R1020, 2 December 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.028

Free access to full text and pdf download

After writing this feature, I was left with the feeling that we're standing at the edge of a cliff (no pushing at the back!). Since then, however, I've read a book for review that made me think maybe we're already one step further. Like those cartoon characters that stay suspended in mid-air until they realise that they are bound to fall. So I guess it's fine as long as we don't look down. More about that soon, when my review comes out. Now that's what I call a cliffhanger.

Extensive ruins such as those of the Roman colony of Thamugadi (Timgad) in modern-day Algeria remind us that civilisations can and do collapse. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/PhR61.) I actually visited Timgad many years ago. It does make a big impression.

PS Jan 2017: Oooops, I never did resolve that cliffhanger, did I? The book I was reviewing at the time was "The energy of nations" (review is in C&I Feb 2014, p51, but I forgot to blog about it), in which Jeremy Leggett argues that risk-blindness could lead the energy sector into a crash worse than the financial crisis, and big enough to lead to a collapse of civilisation. Now, as an irascible twitter troll takes over the White House and brings along his fossil fuel cronies, this prospect appears closer than ever.