The next time you step on a cockroach, think about this: The tiny brain you just crushed is loaded with so many antibacterial molecules that it makes prescription drugs look like sugar pills.
For years, researchers have wondered how cockroaches manage to thrive, and now they finally have the answer. Scientists have identified nine antibiotic molecules in the brains of cockroaches and locusts that protect them from voracious, lethal bacteria. The implications of these findings cannot be overstated. Right now, even the most cutting-edge antibiotics can’t keep up with bacteria’s ability to constantly evolve and mutate.
Consider our ongoing battle with MRSA—a type of bacteria that flourishes in hospitals, locker rooms, and playgrounds. When a human comes into contact with MRSA, the bacteria burrow into the skin, forming a welt. If the victim is lucky, the welt turns into a painful abscess, which can be drained. But sometimes, the bacteria burrow deeper into the body, driving their way through muscles, joints, bones, and vital organs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because scientists haven’t been able to develop a drug to treat this type of infection, in 2007 more people died from MRSA than from AIDS.
Researchers at Britain’s University of Nottingham found that when MRSA is pitted against the antibiotics in a cockroach brain, the bacteria don’t stand a chance. The cockroach molecules wipe out 90 percent of MRSA bacteria on contact.
And that’s not all. According to the CDC, six people infected with E. coli, associated with undercooked meat and dirty water, die each year from complications because our best meds are ineffective. But when a cockroach cocktail was used on E. coli in the lab, it knocked out the bacteria.
There are many technical hurdles to overcome before cockroach brains are available at the local drugstore—isolating all the right molecules and decoding how they defeat bacteria, for example. In the meantime, if you see a cockroach scurrying across your floor, say a quick “thank you” before you squash it. Someday, one of those little buggers might save your life.
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader.