The Grapevine

Zombies May Soon Help Doctors Fight Antibiotic Resistance

Doctors may soon use real zombies to battle bugs that cause antibiotic resistance. Scientists have discovered a never-before-seen survival strategy that turns bacteria into “zombies,” which could help treat serious infections, ScienceAlert reported Sunday.

The team found that bacteria tend to go to deep sleep or “zombie mode” when starved of nutrients, a process that results to single-celled organisms going to dormant state until favorable conditions occur. The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, come from the analysis of the survival strategy, called oligotrophic or nutrient poor growth, and its impact on non-pathogenic bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

Bacteria use a protective coating called endospores, which serves as a shield that enables them to shut down during harsh conditions, like intake of antibiotics. However, the researchers found that starving bacteria of nutrients could prevent them from entering a dormant state and escaping antibiotics. 

“We show that these starved cells are not dormant but are growing and dividing,” the team said. 

Using the oligotrophic strategy, the bacteria continued to divide when in the zombie state but significantly slower than with endospores. The researchers also said that the bacteria appeared capable to return to zombie state easily after detecting a dose of antibiotics. The team aims to conduct further studies to see if oligotrophic growth can happen in other types of bacteria too. 

“The big question now is: do bacteria other than Bacillus know this trick too?” said lead researcher Leendert Hamoen, from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “If so, this fundamentally changes our outlook on bacteria. Apparently, they do not always have to form spores to survive.” He said finding that more bacteria are able to switch to the zombie state would enable scientists to know how bacteria can escape antibiotics.

The medical community has been trying to find new methods to fight the bugs that evolved to become resistant to best antibiotics. Researchers expect the new study to help future efforts to explore how to fight antibiotic resistance.