Know What's Horrifying? This Video of Bacteria Evolving to Fight Antibiotics

bacteria resistance to antibiotics
Vimeo | Harvard Medical School

You've heard about the growing problem antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But to see bacteria evolve and mutate with your won eyes is a totally different, totally frightening thing to see. Lucky you, Harvard Medical School wants to treat you to that exact horror show.

They've released a video from a study that shows bacteria move across a massive 2-foot x 4-foot petri dish over the course of two weeks. The petri dish is striped with increasing levels of antibiotics. At the ends, there are no antibiotics. The next stripe contains just above the minimum amount of antibiotics required to kill the bacteria. In the next stripe it's 10 times that amount, then 100 times that amount, and the center stripe contains 1,000 times the amount present in the first stripe of antibiotics.

The study was done by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. "We know quite a bit about the internal defense mechanisms bacteria use to evade antibiotics," said Michael Baym, the study's lead researcher, "but we don't really know much about their physical movements across space as they adapt to survive in different environments."

What you're seeing isn't simply mutation. The evolution of those mutant strains requires that they survive and reproduce. If weaker bacteria are able to eat the nutrients on the plate, that leaves nothing for the mutating strands that will survive. The team called it "a powerful, unvarnished visualization of bacterial movement, death and survival; evolution at work, visible to the naked eye."

What's phenomenal outside the research is that they've created the conditions to present their experiment in a way that's accessible to someone who didn't, say, graduate from Harvard. They dyed the agar jelly black to make the bacteria visible and heated the lid of the petri dish to keep it dry and free of condensation, among other moves with an eye on the cinematic effect of the experiment. Those efforts make it easy to see evolution at work, even for those who might think science is something you "buy into."

"Seeing the bacteria spread for the first time was a thrill," said senior study investigator Roy Kishony. "Our MEGA-plate takes complex, often obscure, concepts in evolution, such as mutation selection, lineages, parallel evolution and clonal interference, and provides a visual seeing-is-believing demonstration of these otherwise vague ideas. It’s also a powerful illustration of how easy it is for bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics.”

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record, but has never met the fingernail lady. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, The Rumpus, and other digital wonderlands. Follow him @dlukenelson.