“A remarkable thing about microbes—and it is only remarkable from our anthropocentric point of view—is the coöperation among them,” he told me. “We in the macroscopic world need organic material as food, and oxygen to oxidize it, to get energy. You, a cow, a giraffe—we’re all the same. We may not be in each other’s way if one eats fish and the other grass, but little coöperation is possible, considering our metabolic needs.” Bacterial metabolism, on the other hand, is staggeringly diverse: some microbes eat ammonium, some eat hydrogen; some breathe sulfates, some breathe iron. Often, microbes are interdependent: what is waste for one is essential for another.
If antibiotics are indeed weapons, then humans are latecomers to an aeons-old arms race, whose rules remain opaque to us. “It is absurd to believe that we could ever claim victory in a war against organisms that outnumber us by a factor of 10 to the 22nd power, that outweigh us by a factor of 10 to the 8th power, that have existed for a thousand times longer than our species, and that can undergo as many as five hundred thousand generations during one of our generations,” several scientists argued in a recent paper. The arsenals in question took bacteria billions of years to develop. “In contrast, antibiotics were not discovered by humans until the first half of the twentieth century.”
From The Unseen in this week's New Yorker
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