Antibiotics count among the most significant medical advances in modern medicine, yet their widespread use has served to dilute their effect. The more we use the drugs, the more disease-causing microbes become impervious to them: According to one study, by the year 2050 these drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million people to die every year.
A problem with microbes is that they are too small to see with the naked eye so it’s difficult to demonstrate their imperviousness to drugs. Yet a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School and Technion–Israel Institute of Technology has developed a way to show bacteria as it mutates into strands that are resistant to stronger and stronger doses of drugs. They’ve also created a time-lapse video, pointed out by The Atlantic, that documents it–and despite how terrifying the concept is, the video is visually beautiful.
The idea for the project came to Roy Kishony, a professor at Technion and Harvard Medical School, when he was teaching a class on evolution at Harvard in 2012. Inspired by a billboard from Warner Bros for the movie Contagion, which was essentially a large petri dish that grew the title of the movie in bacteria, Kishony decided that he and his students could do something similar. Theirs would be even bigger in scale and would demonstrate how microbes evolved to become resistant to antibiotic drugs.
His T.A. Tami Lieberman, a PhD student in systems biology, created the concept for a 4-foot-by-2-foot “mega-plate” petri dish, which is divided into nine sections. The entire dish was filled with nutritious agar, but the sections were filled with varying amounts of antibiotic: starting with a drug-free outer section on both sides, the drugs increased tenfold in each section toward the center. Lieberman dyed the agar with black ink so that the bacteria would show up white against it. As the bacteria hits each drug-increased section, you can actually see it pause, mutate into a strand that is resistant to the drug, and advance to the next section.
The result of the project is a video, shot by Michael Baym, a post-doctoral fellow in Kishony’s lab, that shows an army of white microbes as it makes its way across increasingly dangerous enemy lines. It’s stunning to watch the time-lapse as the microbes come up against a new, drug-heavy section of agar: after the bacteria stops briefly, white spots start to bloom and overtakes the section. By the end of the video, the center–which is filled with 1,000 times as much antibiotic as the drug-free outer layers–has been completely colonized by microbes impervious to its drug.
To capture the action on film, Baym fastened a camera to the ceiling then put the images together into a time-lapse video in postproduction. He says that once Lieberman had the idea to dye the agar black, it was simply a matter of documenting the proceedings. Since the liquid in the petri dish is enclosed in a glass case, the glass kept getting fogged–leading the researchers to hook up space heaters to an Arduino so that they would alternatively heat and clear the glass.
Baym isn’t a professional photographer or videographer, and he insists he has no special filmmaking skills. Visualizing the information was as simple as documenting it and cutting it together into a video. But being able to see the evolution of microbes is extremely useful, both as a teaching aid, as it was used in Kishony’s class, and as a way to further biological research. “It’s a fantastic tool because it’s a very systematic and comprehensive way to visualize all the different ways bacteria becomes resistant to a range of antibiotics,” says Kishony. “We can use that to really build a database or a guide to all the possible genomic changes that predict adaptation to antibiotics.”
Kishony and his team of researchers are continuing to test new antibiotics and bacteria, documenting the sequence of mutations. He thinks that it might lead to being able to anticipate a disease becoming impervious to drugs before it happens. Baym agrees, adding: “The hope is by understanding this process we can come up with therapies that keep in mind the evolution [of bacteria], but in order to do that we have to understand how that works in a systematic way.”