DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. The World Health Organization says the rise of antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest health threats faced by humanity. Every year, it gets harder and harder to treat infectious diseases. Well, now scientists say they have found a new clue about where this resistance is coming from, and they found that clue in a cave 1,200 feet underground. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff explains.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The cave is called Lechuguilla, and it's one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. It's in New Mexico, and it's the deepest cave in the southern U.S. Hazel Barton at the University of Akron says life in the cave never sees the sun and has been untouched for four million years.
HAZEL BARTON: It takes about 10,000 years for water from the surface to get into the cave. So we have the ability to study the environment and how life survived in a pre-industrial era.
DOUCLEFF: Before there were hospitals, doctors and antibiotic drugs, which makes what Barton and her colleagues found in the cave almost unbelievable - a bacteria that's resistant to 26 antibiotics.
BARTON: People are like, oh, no, it's a superbug. I prefer to call it a hero bug because it's helping us develop drugs long before we need them.
DOUCLEFF: A hero bug because, Barton says, by studying its genes, scientists can learn how superbugs fight off antibiotics, and we can get one step ahead of them. And she says these new bacteria are changing our understanding for how resistance forms. Barton and her team report the findings in the journal Nature Communications. Bill Hanage at Harvard University says the study tells us something else important.
BILL HANAGE: Antibiotic resistance is ancient. Now, when I say ancient, we're talking millions, possibly billions, of years.
DOUCLEFF: Because here's the thing - antibiotics themselves are ancient. Bacteria and fungi have been making them for eons to fight each other. So they've had a long, long time to develop resistance to them. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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