Antibiotic-resistant bacteria offer lessons in behavior modifications

Learning from biology for strategic resistance management modification.


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Many people want to tackle climate change, but it’s hard due to lifestyle choices and limited time for significant changes. UCLA biologists studying resistance in nature think lessons from tiny organisms could help overcome barriers to social changes, including those needed for human-wildlife conflicts.

They’ve identified tactics from studying pests and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could aid humans in making necessary changes. Published in Evolutionary Applications, their paper suggests strategies to counter resistance and encourage crucial shifts in behavior.

The team created a framework based on biological strategies to manage resistance. This approach aims to pinpoint challenges in interactions between humans and nature and social dynamics using various perspectives on resistance.

Study corresponding author Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said, “We’ve learned a lot from decades of agricultural and biomedical research about biological resistance, and our goal with the paper was to identify lessons and think about their broad application. We noted that to prevent or manage resistance, we must carefully select the treatment that is least likely to be overcome by an organism.”

The first strategy is prevention, like planting diverse crops in agriculture to deter pests. Similarly, preventing human-wildlife conflicts involves avoiding building in animal habitats. Existing conflicts can be managed with deterrents, such as bear-resistant dumpsters.

“Adaptive therapy” combines control methods to reduce pests or pathogens without eliminating them. An example is “spare the air” days, where people are urged not to drive in poor air quality. This lessens but doesn’t eliminate vehicle-related air pollution.

The urgent need for behavior change is highlighted in antibiotic resistance. Overusing antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily and giving them to animals contribute to this problem, emphasizing the critical role of human behavior in biological evolution.

Crucial to preventing new antibiotic-resistant bacteria is changing human behavior. Studies suggest that discouraging unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions and banning their use in healthy farm animals can help. Shifting the medical goal to symptom relief, not eradication, allows vulnerable bacteria to be managed naturally, reducing overall resistance. Using multiple approaches simultaneously, as in HIV treatment, is another effective tactic. While no single tactic can halt climate change, combining strategies is essential.

Blumstein said, “To tackle the climate emergency, we will likely need to use everything in our toolbox to bring about the rapid reduction in atmospheric carbon needed to stabilize or even reverse global warming.”

Blumstein says that necessary changes in transportation, energy, and food systems may face resistance. Ideal changes include affordable electric cars, convenient public transportation, and subsidies for efficient electric stoves.

Though attractive, significant lifestyle changes can be challenging or costly. The goal is to minimize resistance by introducing changes gradually. Even if some resist, the hope is that many will adopt small changes, collectively making a substantial impact on reducing fossil fuel and energy consumption.

Journal reference:

  1. Daniel T. Blumstein, Norman A. Johnson et al., Biological lessons for strategic resistance management. Evolutionary Applications. DOI: 10.1111/eva.13616.


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