Is the use of antibiotics leading to increased resistance in bacteria?

There has been a lot of coverage in the media in recent times about the rise of “superbugs”: bacteria that has become immune to even our strongest antibiotics.

Sensationalist headlines predict the end of the world as killer bacteria wipe out the human race, unstoppable in their march thanks to resistance acquired from exposure to antibiotics that are flippantly over-used by hypercondriacs.

The theory that is used to justify these headlines is that more we use antibiotics, the more quickly bacteria evolve to resist them, and the faster the drugs stop working. Basically, an arms race where biology is pitted against technology, and where biology will be the inevitable winner as technology eventually runs out of ideas.

But is this really the case?

Well, we may indeed end up being wiped out by an unstoppable killer bacteria, but if that is our fate then it is our fate despite the use of antibiotics, not because of it.

One of the worst offenders is Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer who encourages the development of new antibiotics on the one hand (which is good), but who champions the training of NHS staff so that they “have the skills, knowledge and training to prescribe and administer antibiotics appropriately” – as though the prescription or non-prescription of these drugs makes any difference whatsoever to the spread of these “superbugs”.

Mutations are random and they happen all the time. The mutation that allowed early Europeans to produce lactase which enabled us to process lactose in milk was good. Mutations that turn previously healthy cells cancerous are bad. Neither mutation was caused by antibiotics.

The Lederberg experiment

In 1952, Esther and Joshua Lederberg set up an experiment. They hypothesised that antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria surviving an application of antibiotics had the resistance before they were exposed and not as a result of the exposure. This was what they did:

lederberg_1Bacteria was spread out on a plate, called the “original plate”.
lederberg_22. They were allowed to grow into several different colonies.
lederberg_33. This layout of colonies was cloned from the original plate onto a new plate that contained the antibiotic penicillin.
lederberg_44. Colonies X and Y on the stamped plate survived. According to the sensationalists, this is because they were exposed to an antibiotic and evolved resistance to it.
lederberg_55. In reality, when penicillin was applied to the original plate, the same colonies (those in position X and Y) lived — even though those colonies had never encountered penicillin before.

So the penicillin-resistant bacteria were present in the population before they encountered penicillin and did not evolve resistance in response to exposure to the antibiotic. Similarly, the bacteria that was not immune before exposure on the original plate continued not to be immune after exposure on the penicillin plate.

So instead of causing bacteria to become immune to antibiotics, what these drugs do is expose the already-resistant bacteria by destroying the organisms that are not immune, leaving only the resistant ones behind.

Therefore, preventing or slowing down the use of antibiotics will not prevent bacteria from becoming resistant to them as a given cell is either already resistant or is destined to become resistant due to random mutations that would occur both in the presence and absence of the drug.

Instead, the outcome of using antibiotics is that a resistant organism may thrive in a host if its non-resistant variant – effectively its competition – is wiped out by an antibiotic. That is, although the resistant organism might have existed within the host in any case, without antibiotics it may have been limited in concentration by the competition for resources from its non-resistant variants. With that competition removed, it is free to expand at will and is therefore more likely to be the variant passed on to someone else.

But whether this outcome is really a problem is debatable, because it’s impossible to know whether a variant that was wiped out by a given antibiotic today wouldn’t have gone on to evolve into something much worse than the resistant variant tomorrow. It’s all purely down to chance.

Visit Dolgellau sold

This is just a quick post to state that I am no longer the owner of Visit Dolgellau as the website has been sold.

I was finding it difficult to balance my time between work, this website, a number of other projects and having a life. With neither project receiving the attention that it deserved, it was clear that something had to change. So I decided to sell some projects in order to free up time for the others and I’m afraid that Visit Dolgellau was among the former.

The new owner, Kyle, is keen to run the website in the same manner so users shouldn’t notice much of a difference. He’s also keen to continue to grow it with more content and a larger directory, making the website even more of a useful resource for visitors.

I’d like to wish Kyle all the best with his endeavour.

Why Visit Dolgellau is written in English (and not Welsh)

Around once a month or so I receive an email or a message on Facebook asking me why Visit Dolgellau is written in English and not Welsh. It’s a tourist-focused website that I set up last year to promote my home town and the surrounding area.

Some seem to think that it’s an Assembly-backed website (which I take as a compliment, given the website’s humble background!) and are curious as to why it isn’t bilingual as a matter of course like the others. But others are clearly nationalists who simply hate anything that isn’t Welsh and this post is intended for them.

1) The role of Visit Dolgellau is to promote Dolgellau and the wider area as a tourist destination. In general, people who visit Wales tend not to be Welsh (because Welsh people already live here).

2) The website’s analytics data shows that the vast majority of traffic originates from outside Wales. In general, people who live outside Wales do not speak Welsh (because Welsh is only spoken in Wales, and by less than 20% of the population at that).

3) The research available on Visit Wales and Visit Britain indicates that among the list of reasons that tourists come to Wales are the castles and the outdoor activities. So that they may be forced to read websites that they do not understand does not feature on the list at all.

4) That same research indicates that the vast majority of visitors come from either England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, the USA, France or Germany. None of these countries speak Welsh, but five of them speak English as a first language and the other two speak it as a second.

5) Given that the vast majority of people who visit Wales do not speak Welsh, forcing potential visitors to learn the language before they can find out about Dolgellau and the surrounding area is not conducive to a welcoming environment and is likely to have a detrimental impact on tourism. This is the opposite of what the site aims to achieve.

6) Automated translation is not an acceptable alternative for English-speaking visitors because, as shown in point 4, they are by far the site’s primary target audience. Instead, automated translation serves as a “better than nothing” option for those who wish to use the site in a language that is used by the minority, and bearing in mind points 1, 2 and 4, this is where Welsh sits in this instance.

7) If the site was called “Living in Dolgellau” and was aimed at locals then a bilingual website would make sense; the site however is called “Visit Dolgellau” and is aimed at visitors. The clue is in the name really.

8) I’m one guy, running and maintaining the website alongside a full-time job. I don’t have time to duplicate everything in any language, least of all one that fewer than 1% of the website’s users understand. If I did have time to duplicate everything in another language at all, then, based on point 4, French or German would make more sense.

9) If you really want to see a website promoting North Wales as a tourist destination for the people who already live here, then why not set up your own instead of writing to me to complain about mine? Alternatively, if you really want to see Welsh content on Visit Dolgellau and you have time to write content that only a fraction of the site’s users will be able to understand, you’re welcome to be a contributor – just get in touch and we’ll sort it out.

Visit Dolgellau

Although I live in Manchester now, originally I’m from a little town in Wales called Dolgellau. Dolgellau is a market town in Gwynedd, north-west Wales, and is set in the southern part of
the Snowdonia National Park at the foot of the Cadair Idris mountain range. It’s a beautiful place – a fact that is only made all the more apparent now that I live in a city – and whenever I show anyone any photos I am always told how lucky I was to have grown up with such surroundings.

Back in 2004, a graphic designer colleague and I were asked by the Partnership – a guild of local businesses basically – to develop a website for the town. We enthusiastically accepted the challenge but soon discovered that politics and conflicting ideas within the Partnership made any kind of progress extremely difficult. The project ran out of steam, we all moved on to other things and in 2007 I moved to Manchester.

Fast forward some years and one day I decided to see if anything had ever become of the town website. The domain that had previously been secured had been taken over by someone else, but there was a new website at a new domain. The initial pleasant surprise that I felt on discovering that a website had finally been put together was quickly dampened when I saw what it looked like. The dated design could perhaps have been overlooked if everything worked, but unfortunately the site was full of broken links, empty pages and pixelated photos that were the wrong aspect ratio. I decided to get in touch so that I could offer to help fix some of these problems but the contact form didn’t work either – and there was no phone number.

So, the idea of a new website was born: I’d create an attractive, modern-looking website which provided quick and easy access to everything that a potential visitor could want – things to do, places to go and somewhere to stay. It would capitalise on the tourism-focused naming convention established by Visit Britain, Visit Wales and Visit Snowdonia and would be called Visit Dolgellau. There would be no politics getting in the way this time round.

The saying, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” drove the initial concept: since the town is right in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain, a photo gallery was a no-brainer – as was a large carousel on the front page. The other boxes to tick were “The Three As”: activities, attractions and accommodation, and these would be built around the gallery in order to provide potential visitors with the practical information they needed once the photographs had convinced them of their need to visit.

Despite Dolgellau being in the middle of the Welsh heartlands and despite the fact that my first language is Welsh, I made the conscious decision that the website would be developed primarily in English: after all, the aim here was to attract visitors and no-one outside of Wales speaks Welsh. A website aimed at attracting visitors that only people who lived in the area (or more accurately, around 65% of them) could understand was simply pointless, and doing everything twice was too much work for a team of one. Google would therefore provide translation duties for all other languages.

The aim of the website was to help promote the town and to boost the local economy, but I couldn’t provide it all for free because of course there are costs associated with setting up and maintaining a website. As such, I would ask each business for a nominal annual fee – just enough to cover running costs and to provide enough money to run the occasional advertising campaign – which would benefit everyone equally.

Visit Dolgellau launched last week and has so far received a very positive response! Its Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages have all attracted likes and follows and together with the website itself, are each doing their bit for Dolgellau and the surrounding area.

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