Joseph Musumeci ’03 Presents Year’s First Abbot Scholar Forum

Kicking off the inaugural year of the Abbot Scholars program, Joe Musumeci ’03 delivered his presentation, entitled “Deadly Resistance: Bacteria’s Counterstrike Against Antibiotics,” on Friday evening in Kemper Auditorium. The culmination of Musumeci’s work during the past two terms, the report attempted to explain how and why bacteria are becoming increasingly more resistant to antibiotics and what this information means for the future of global medicine and disease control. With funds from the newly- instituted Abbot Scholars program, Musumeci conducted his research in the library under the guidance of Head of Instructional Services Margaret Cohen and his laboratory work under the supervision of Visiting Scholar in Molecular Biology Dr. Jeremiah Hagler. Musumeci began his presentation with two opposing quotations. The first, from Surgeon General William Taft in 1969, stated, “We can close the books on infectious diseases,” thanks to the efficiency of antibiotics in curing diseases. The second, a government statement from 2000, warned that antibiotics have been overused so severely that there will come a time when bacteria will be resistant to all known antibiotics, thus making it impossible to fight fatal diseases. Using these two quotations as a starting point, Musumeci proceeded to explain the development of defenses in bacteria to counter many antibiotics. According to Musumeci, bacteria are among the most successful organisms to have ever inhabited the earth. He stated, “[Bacteria] were the first organisms ever and they will, undoubtedly, be one of the last.” This longevity stems largely from bacteria’s ability to adapt to many environments. Consequently, Musumeci continued, bacteria have adapted in order to ensure access to the resources of their environment by creating defense mechanisms with which to fight threatening substances. Musumeci explained that this theory can be applied to a bacterium’s relationship with an antibiotic. The purpose of an antibiotic is to disable a certain metabolic process in a cell, thus rendering the cell incapable of living. An antibiotic might be eradicated through one of two methods. First, a bacterium could use proteins to kill the antibiotic. However, since bacteria are highly adaptable, it would be much simpler for them to adapt themselves so that their own metabolic processes might continue, when faced with the threat of an antibiotic. Through this second method, Musumeci reasoned, bacteria become resistant to the antibiotic. This adaptation occurs when a bacterium changes the way it “looks” by sending out substances called plasmids through the body. These plasmids allow other bacteria to adapt as well, thus creating enough resistant cells to render an antibiotic ineffective in combating the bacteria. According to Musumeci, an increased dosage of an antibiotic simply results in more bacteria sending out plasmids, and the creation of more resistant cells. Thus, the overuse of antibiotics throughout the years has led to a great increase in the strength of bacteria’s resistance. He cautioned that once a bacteria has been exposed to a certain antibiotic, it is impossible to stop resistance to it. He recommended abstinence from the use of antibiotics, when possible, to reduce significantly bacteria’s resistance to them. According to Musumeci, incidences of the overuse of antibiotics fall into three categories: prescriptions, household cleaning products, and livestock feed. Musumeci explained that 30 to 50 percent of prescriptions are administered for preventive purposes, resulting in bacteria’s becoming resistant to a disease before it even enters the body. Antibiotics are also frequently administered for viral infections, which they do not heal. Secondly, household cleaning products containing antibiotics are also widely overused. Finally, Musumeci explained that through eating meat, humans contract the antibiotics fed to animals, thus allowing their own bacteria to become resistant. Livestock feed accounts for 50 percent of all antibiotic use, and it is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) to remedy these problems. However, Musumeci explained that because the F.D.A is largely funded by the Agricultural Subcommittee, these problems will continue unhindered. Another contributing factor to antibiotic resistance is the prevalence of bacteria in hospitals. According to Musumeci, hospitals are filled with the antibiotics that patients can easily be exposed to, thus rendering the bacteria resistant to those antibiotics. These resistant bacteria are then spread to the rest of the population through the resistant patients, therefore increasing global resistance. Musumeci’s laboratory research consisted of testing various bacteria for their resistance to certain antibiotics. Using a technique known as sequencing, Musumeci obtained the DNA sequence of each bacteria, thus discovering the antibiotics to which the bacteria is resistant. Musumeci ended his presentation by explaining that the increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics could result in the rapid global outbreak of a fatal disease, with bacteria resistant to the antibiotics needed to cure it. The presentations of the remaining 13 Abbot Scholars will occur throughout the remainder of the spring term and will cover a wide range of topics, from laboratory research to film projects.