Home remedies run the range from amazing to ridiculous. But one common household item, the kitchen sponge, could help humans solve the complex issue of antibiotic resistance. Researchers from the New York Institute of Technology recently discovered certain viruses that are able to infect bacteria growing in their homes, specifically on moist kitchen sponges. The microbial action on this commonplace item could be a useful way to combat the bacteria that have adapted so readily antibiotics can’t cope with them anymore.
The earliest results of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, and seem promising. “Our study illustrates the value in searching any microbial environment that could harbor potentially useful phages,” said Brianna Weiss, one of two Life Sciences students who worked on the project using stuff from their own homes. The research was presented under the title, “The solution to antibiotic resistance could be in your kitchen sponge.” This is some rare good news in the agonizing situation humans face in an increasing environment of antibiotic resistance. Here’s how the sponge discovery might help in the long term:
Why antibiotic resistance is on the rise
We live in an age where wild animals, humans, and even plants have reaped the benefits of antibiotics that fight diseases and infections. The problem is, the bacteria causing these ailments are adaptable with a capital “A.” So each time a new antibiotic issues forth from researchers or a pharmaceutical company, it works great. But only for a while. In some cases, a single bacteria figures out a way to resist the antibiotic and survives and thrives. In others, the bacteria become resistant as their genetic material mutates. No matter the cause, what the world has ended up with is a batch of common diseases that can no longer be treated by antibiotics. According to a United Nations report on drug resistance, “Alarming levels of resistance have been reported in countries of all income levels, with the result that common diseases are becoming untreatable, and lifesaving medical procedures riskier to perform.”
Both patients and medical professionals are also complicit in this deadly equation because both tend to either misuse or overuse FDA-approved antimicrobials and antibiotics. The antibiotic-resistant diseases that were causing some 700,000 deaths annually in 2013 will take more than 2.4 million lives in high-income countries between 2015 and 2050, according to the United Nations, “without a sustained effort to contain antimicrobial resistance.”
A sink full of phages
To understand what a kitchen sponge has in common with antibiotic resistance, first you need to understand the term “bacteriophage.” “Phage” for short, these are viruses that can infect bacteria. Phages are found all the same places as bacteria, sort of the way foodies always flock to the trendiest restaurant. The undergraduate research class that started the sponge experiment knew enough about microbiology to realize kitchen sponges would be phage hubs. From there, the students used phages from their own set of sponge bacteria to cross-infect sponge bacteria from a different household. Once they proved that a phage could be sicced on bacteria other than ones present in its home microbiome, they opened up a lot of possibilities for fighting bacteria that won’t succumb to antibiotics alone. “Continuing our work, we hope to isolate and characterize more phages that can infect bacteria from a variety of microbial ecosystems, where some of these phages might be used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections,” Weiss added.
It’s so cool that sponges could potentially join homemade chicken soup and BPA-free leftover containers as sources of medical benefits from the kitchen. But you do have to wonder what’s next. Here’s hoping it will involve that gunk that forms on the microwave door, so almost everyone will have access to it.