The Never-Ending War Against Bacteria and Viruses

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The enemy is everywhere. Trillions of them surround you, invisible, intangible, their mere existence quite capable of killing you. You have defenses, but they can avoid or destroy those defenses and work their will upon your body. From bacteria and viruses, there is no escape. Throughout human history, we have been at war with them… the front lines our very bodies. It is a war we are not winning.

We have developed few effective tactics against them. Our oldest tactic, sterilization, was first used circa 3000 B.C. when the Egyptians used antiseptics such as pitch and tar in the creation of their mummies. The next five thousand years saw considerable development in this process of killing bacteria, and today surgical instruments are sterilized using steam and ionized gasses (1, 2). Almost as old, systems of sanitation are similar to sterilization, in that they reduce or eliminate exposure to potentially dangerous bacteria. In short supply however, have been tactics to combat infectious disease after the bacteria have already gained a foothold have been in short supply through most of human history. Once infected, we could only sit back and hope the body’s immune system would take care of the problem. That all changed in 1928 when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic. An infected person could be given penicillin, and the drug would kill the bacteria in the body, removing the infection (3). Finally, after 5000 years of war, a truly effective tactic had been discovered.

In 1943 companies began mass-producing penicillin to treat bacterial infection. Less than four years later, the first resistant strains were discovered (4). We developed different antibiotics,...

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(13) V. Derycke, R. Martel, J. Appenzeller, and Ph. Avouris. “Carbon Nanotube Inter- and Intramolecular Logic Gates.” Nano Letters. October 15, 2001.

(14) “The Incredible Shrinking Computer.” Small Times. October 15, 2001.

(15) Leo, Alan. “Blue is for Biohazard.” Technology Review. October 15, 2001.

(16) Freitas Jr. Robert A. Nanomedicine. October 15, 2001.

(17) Feynman, Richard P. “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” November 14, 2001.

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