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Science Through Story: Needing to Evolve (Part One)

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(Science through story is an ongoing series in which I try to figure out how to make the rest of the world as interested in science as I am.)

Words matter. Since I’m both a scientist and a writer, they matter to me even more. So I never felt guilty taking my college freshmen to task when they misused words in their attempts to explain a scientific process. (Example: Molecules don’t “want” to move from an area of high concentration to low concentration. As non-sentient particles, molecules lack the ability to “want” anything.)

But to the point of this post: one of the moms at my kids’ bus stop was talking about antibiotics. Her daughter had been sick, and had been to see the pediatrician. The doctor told this mom that her daughter probably had a virus, and she needed to take care of her illness with bed rest and fluids.  I was thrilled, having heard too many stories of moms who shop around for doctors until they find one who will give them an antibiotic prescription they don’t need.

And then she said it. “What the doctor said was that when people don’t finish their antibiotics prescriptions, the bacteria learn to mutate and become resistant to the medicine.”

So close, yet so far.

It’s a great visual, isn’t it? Can’t you see a little circle of germs in a football huddle, heads together, saying, “Okay guys, it’s looking pretty bad out there for us right now…the kid’s resting up, mom’s got the fluids going, and now they’re bringing in the big guns, the medicine…so we’ve got no choice: it’s time to go nuclear on this thing. We have to learn to mutate, in order to survive.”

Actual cartoon from one of my college notebooks. I said I was a writer and a scientist, not an artist.

It’s one of the most common misconceptions in biology: that organisms adapt (or evolve) because they have to in order to survive. This misunderstanding robs the genetic basis of evolution of its magic, its randomness, its terror, really – that if something doesn’t happen by chance in a species’ genetic code, it’s going to vanish from existence.

How does that misconception spread? Here’s an example: Antibiotic MRSA in Livestock May Spread to Humans.

Here’s a few quotes from the article:

Livestock in the United States may be building resistance to deadly bacterial infections

‘Most of the ancestral human strains were sensitive to antibiotics, whereas the livestock strains had acquired resistance on several independent occasions…’

Once the strain infected livestock, the strain likely changed into several different types, some of which are resistant to various antibiotics, said Fitzgerald, and it is now a two-way street.

(Emphasis mine.)

Building. Acquired. Changed. These terms are very human. We build buildings, acquire new items, change clothes. It makes the bacteria seem like they will do what it takes to survive. After all, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we build a wall, acquire food sources, change our behavior if we knew a hurricane is coming?

When we hear a word, our brains fetch a definition for that word that matches our experience.  In science, that’s how we get from “species evolve because a random act gives them the ability to survive in their environment” to “species evolve because they need to adapt to their environment.”   It’s why I’d like to see news articles meant for a mainstream audience include a paragraph (even a sidebar) on the basics of how a process works to answer questions like:

“Why does it matter if I take antibiotics when I don’t need them?”

“How does finishing my prescription help drop the chances of adding to the problem?”

Time is precious – we are challenged as science writers to distill the essentials from a scientific process to create  concise and interesting ways to convey both the problem and a solution.

(Next post: a possible solution.)  

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 19, 2012 at 10:39 am

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