2023 Audio - Silver

Australian podcaster and host Wendy Zukerman and the "Science Vs" podcast team dug into the science of “superbugs,” bacteria that can’t be killed by some of the strongest antibiotics. We've been hearing about this problem for years, Zukerman notes, but recently it has become apparent that the bugs are not only scary, they also have been discovered in many locations, including hitching a ride on tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean. Bacteria started learning tricks to outsmart antibiotics long before humans started using them against infections, Zukerman notes, and they can readily share their tricks, the tiniest genetic mutations, with friendly bacteria. Curiously, the resulting superbugs, while dangerous, can reside quite normally in our guts. “A superbug isn’t any more likely to cause disease, it’s just that if it does it’s harder to treat,” Zukerman notes. And hospitals, with many immune-compromised patients, become ground zero for superbug infections. Researchers have been scrambling to keep up, with some success using viruses called phages that prey on bacteria. Alas, finding the right phage for a particular superbug can be challenging and there are concerns, too, that bacteria can become resistant to phages. “So, we don’t want to focus too much on the Band-Aid,” says Dr. Fernando Gordillo Altamirano, a phage researcher, who was interviewed on the podcast. “We really need to focus on what is causing the wound in the first place. So, we need to stop taking antibiotics if we don’t need them.” Judge Lindsay Patterson, producer and co-host of the Tumble Science Podcast for Kids, said Zukerman and her team “put ‘superbugs’ on a human scale by introducing the listener to the very real researchers who are looking for solutions. I listened with a strange sense of optimism about the problems that good science can solve ― and also an appreciation for the evil genius of bacterial evolution.” This is the second AAAS Kavli award for the Science Vs team. “Antibiotic resistant superbugs are a growing problem that concerns every person on this planet,” Zukerman said. “Gone are the days of popping antibiotics when we’ve got a sniffle. We hope this prestigious award will help audiences understand why we need to be so careful with the precious antibiotics that we have.”