Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The site of the most amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations you have ever seen. The cave however holds another secret. Deep underground, where no man has set foot for four million years, scientists have found thick mats of bacteria growing on the walls of the cave. Not any ordinary bacteria mind you. Some of these bacteria are resistant as many as 14 different antibiotics that are in use today.
Sounds like bad news? Dr. Hazel Barton and her team from Northern Kentucky University are actually thrilled with this new find. While the bacteria themselves are harmless to humans, they may yield clues to naturally occurring antibiotics that can be used against untreatable infections.
Lechuguilla (pronounced lechu-gi-ya) is one of the deepest cave systems in the United States and the seventh largest in the world. It is said that rain water would take 10,000 years to reach the inner recesses of the caves! Discovered in 1986, access to the caves has been restricted to cave experts and for scientific research.
The formation of the caves is a fascinating story in itself. Most limestone caves are formed when surface water trickles in through cracks and the weak carbonic acid scours (eats through) the rocks to create chambers and passageways. The Lechuguilla caves on the other hand were formed bottom up! A chemical reaction between rising hydrogen sulfide from deep within the Earth and ancient groundwater created sulphuric acid. This extremely corrosive acid ate into limestone creating bizarre mineral formations not seen anywhere else in the world.
Antibiotics and the rise of 'Superbugs'
Bacteria are hardy, single-cell microorganisms that have existed for 3.5 billion years! Many millions of bacteria live in our body as well – in and on our skin and in our guts but most don’t affect us, thanks to our immune system. Some bacteria that live inside us are “good” bacteria that help us digest food. Some cause diseases like pneumonia, typhoid, tuberculosis and strep throat.
So far, doctors have relied on antibiotics to kill harmful bacteria and save lives. If antibiotics are used too much, bacteria become “antibiotic-resistant” – meaning that they adapt and make the antibiotic ineffective. Known as superbugs, these new bacterial strains have become a growing concern in the medical world.
The Lechuguilla bacteria are naturally occuring superbugs -- they appear to have developed resistance by simply conducting germ warfare against other microorganisms for four million years! Bacteria routinely exchange, receive or steal genes from other bacteria surrounding them. It is a case of survival of the fittest.
And where there is resistance among bacteria in the environment, there must also be natural antibiotics other micro-organisms have created. Isn't it amazing how nature presents us with solutions to man-made problems!