Ever felt personally responsible for drug-resistant diseases? It's no wonder. Virtually everyone—permissive doctors, nagging patients, hospital administrators, government bureaucrats, and snotty kids—has been blamed for the problem. It's true: Bacteria are conquering our antibiotics much faster then we're developing them. It's scary, too. When a passenger carrying an extremely drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis boarded two flights in May 2007, hysteria ensued. Panicked schools across the country have closed their doors and undergone thorough scrubbings after detecting MRSA.
It's more than a little embarrassing to be decisively losing a battle of wits to unicellular organisms. At least the bacteria are smart enough to develop new strategies every now and then. We plodding humans have been fighting antibiotic resistance the same way for decades: by restricting access to antibiotics and developing new drugs to kill off problem bugs. It hasn't worked, and it's never going to. Until we make a tactical shift, resistance is going to become more common and more dangerous. But these seemingly indomitable microbes have a soft underbelly. To recognize it, you have to understand how bugs develop drug resistance in the first place.