clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Watch evolution in action as bacteria mutate to resist antibiotic drugs

New, 23 comments

It looks like a football field, but this four-feet by two-feet petri dish is playing host to very different sort of game — nothing more or less than evolution itself. The dish is known as the MEGA-plate, or microbial evolution growth arena plate, and it shows how quickly bacteria can evolve resistance against antibiotic drugs. It's incredibly impressive to look at, but it's also a grim reminder of the danger posed by "superbugs" — bacteria that have evolved to survive antibiotics.

The demonstration was set up by researchers at Harvard and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, with their work described in a paper in Science. The dish is filled with agar jelly, a nutritious medium perfect for growing bacteria, and its surface is divided into channels containing different concentrations of antibiotic drugs. The channels on the far sides are drug-free — the sort of environment the microbes might encounter in the wild — while each step closer to the center increases the concentration of bacteria-killing drugs tenfold.

The bacteria is the milky-white substance, and you can see it starts off at the edges of the dish. It then spreads zone by zone, creeping to the boundaries of each sector before halting. These pauses are just temporary though, and sooner or later a random mutation in the bacteria allows it to survive higher concentration of drugs and it leaps into the new territory. The video is two minutes long, but shows a time-lapse spanning 12 days.

This, then, is why researchers, doctors, and scientists warn about the deadly challenge of superbugs. Antibiotics have been a boon to medicine, but their indiscriminate use is creating a global petri dish in which bacteria are mutating, adapting, and then surviving — despite our efforts to kill them. The scientists who created the MEGA-plate told The Atlantic that it offers a useful research tool to study the spread of bacteria, but that it's also a brilliant visual aid that teaches people the real impact of bacterial evolution.