What do ISIS and Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria have in common? A lot.

How the battle against antibiotic resistant organisms should inform our approach to ISIS.

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“While all these efforts are encouraging and important, it is clear that much more effort to fuel the…battle is needed. Progress has been made, but it is still piecemeal. Efforts are too often uncoordinated, targeting only specific [threats] or only specific countries. Funding is too often narrow, project-specific and time-limited. Perhaps most importantly, strong…leadership is lacking. Real leadership, at all levels—national, regional and global—is critical and necessary now.”

This quote could certainly describe current sentiment about efforts to combat ISIS and other radical jihadists, but its authors had no such intention. Instead, it was written about another threat; an ongoing menace that kills 23,000 Americans annually and has led experts to predict global, near-future death tolls of 10 million people per year.[1] The quote is from ReAct[2], and the assailants they are describing are antibiotic resistant bacteria. Beyond the phraseology of the quote, however, there are marked similarities between multidrug resistant organisms (MDROs) and the self-described Islamic State. Recognizing the uncanny parallels between these two is critical to defeating them both.


1.  Both MDROs and ISIS are living entities dependent on population growth.

Bacteria reproduce by binary fission (dividing). In optimized conditions, a lone bacteria becomes 2, 2 doubles to 4, 4 to 8, 8 to 16, and so on until the bacterial population crests 1 million after 21 generations and 16 million 4 generations later. It’s this propensity for reproduction that can lead a patient’s small skin infection to become lethally systemic in a few days. Of course ISIS doesn’t yet rely on biological reproduction to propagate (although I suspect future jihadists are now being born), but its aggressive recruitment and radicalization efforts have led to a similarly exponential rate of growth. Knowing that both bacterial pathogens and ISIS only pose a threat when they reach a critical mass, curtailing growth is essential to combating both. With respect to ISIS, this means that it is imperative that we stop aiding and abetting their growth strategies. We must refrain from using incendiary language, the us-against-them rhetoric that indiscriminately bleeds over to include all followers of Islam or residents of the Middle East. Our military maneuvers and economic policies cannot ignite resentment in otherwise neutral parties, and we must continue to shine as a beacon of opportunity for, and champion of, innocent people trapped in oppressive regimes.


2.  MDROs and ISIS take hold and proliferate in areas previously weakened.

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passages of healthy people. In small numbers and held in check by intact barriers like the skin and immune system, these bacteria don’t pose a major threat to health. However, when tissues are injured or the immune system is compromised, these previously controlled populations proliferate and generate a life-threatening staph infection. Similarly, terrorism thrives in failed states where recruitment, training, and planning operations occur outside the reach of effective law enforcement and other stabilizing conditions. Returning the whole ‘body’ to health is necessary to tackle the challenge of ISIS and MDROs, and this is why military engagement cannot be the sole strategy to attack ISIS. The use of diplomacy and economic instruments to provide opportunity, equality, health, resilience, and hope in the region in-and-around ISIS is imperative to stemming the spread of their infection. It’s probably the only long term solution, as well.


3.  When threatened, MDROs and ISIS both seek new defenses from unlikely partners.

Bacteria aren’t willing to go down without a fight. When faced with environmental threats, including antibiotics, bacteria actively seek out new adaptations to overcome the assault. Bacteria cleverly gain these new defenses by uniting with other bacteria and exchanging packets of genetic instructions called plasmids (this process of horizontal gene flow between two distinct bacteria is called conjugation). In bacteria, desperate times lead to desperate plasmid exchange, and it’s a way for embattled bacteria to share strategies in an effort to survive and thrive. Similar utilitarian partnerships have emerged between ideologically distinct terrorist groups. First an uneasy alliance for purely practical purposes arose between ISIS and Al Qaeda, and more recently ISIS has sought cooperation with Al-Nusra Front to resist military pressure from the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Then there are the rumors of ISIS’ attempts to secure bomb-making material from disenfranchised groups in eastern Europe. Understanding these seemingly unlikely sources of assistance and blocking the exchange of strategies and resources is as necessary in defeating ISIS as it is combating disease-causing bacteria.


4.  The problems posed by MDROs and ISIS can be made worse by the weapons we have to combat them.

Ever since Sir Alexander Fleming serendipitously discovered penicillin in the 1920s, antibiotics have been our chief weapon in the fight against bacterial infection. However, widespread misuse of antibiotics—namely their inappropriate prescription, widespread prophylactic use in livestock, patients’ premature cessation of treatment, and an uninformed arrogance that antibiotics would forever be a panacea to infectious disease—contributed to the emergence of drug resistant bacteria. The logic is simple: expose a population of bacteria to antibiotics and the first to die are those that are the most susceptible to the drug’s mechanism of action. With each subsequent exposure, only the most disguised, defended, and resistant organisms survive. Stop short of complete annihilation and you have inadvertently helped create a population of super bacteria, and, to make matters worse, you have eliminated their main microbial competition. After incomplete-treatment, the remaining bacteria are free to reproduce and give rise to super resistant colonies, far harder to defeat than their predecessors.

Attacking the Islamic State has proven eerily similar. Western experts gleefully advertised the fall of radical jihadists as American boots marched out of Iraq in 2011, but their victory speeches proved premature when surviving factions emerged, expanded into newly uncontested territory, and adopted strategies even more resistant to defeat. Moving forward, the military hegemon that is the United States and its allies has a diverse arsenal of weapons to combat ISIS. Everything from drone-enabled targeted killing and Special Ops-led assaults to resource embargoes and economic isolation exists as tools to combat ISIS. Relying on a single, unchanging approach, or giving in to hubris or politics to prematurely declare victory, and all that will remain will be the most fortified and strategically evasive terrorists. From these select ashes, they will again rebound and rise stronger than ever. We are at the unfortunate place in the progression of the disease where the only success is complete success; it’s time for us to take our medicine until the ISIS infection is gone for good.


5.  While no one is immune from MDROs or terrorism, prevention is better than any treatment.

While this advice falls into the too-little too-late category given that both ISIS and MDROs exist, the idea that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ still bears mention. After all, history has a funny way of repeating itself, and it’s true that the lessons learned in one arena (say, the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria) can often provide insight into seemingly distant affairs (like the international fight against terrorism). In such a curiously analogous world, let’s learn from our mistakes and adopt a forward-looking, predictive mindset guided by science and an understanding of our past mistakes. Such prevention-minded approaches will always trump reactionary steps to problems in full bloom. Ultimately this reminds me of another thing I learned in Biology 101, “The Precautionary Principle,” but that’s a lesson for another time.

 Want to read more stories of science-inspired products and strategies? Follow@SaysNature on Twitter, an account established and maintained by Kurt MacDonald. Also check back here for original content. Thank you


[1] http://amr-review.org/home

[2] http://www.cgdev.org/article/it%E2%80%99s-time-revise-book-infectious-diseases

How a European Sex-Changing Tree Taught Me The Value of Corporate Agility

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A recent headline caught my attention. “UK’s oldest tree is undergoing sex-change,” proclaimed The Guardian banner, and the title proved decidedly accurate. The subject was a 4000+ year-old yew tree growing quietly in a churchyard in central Scotland. As the article explained, 2015 was the first year that it was observed producing fleshy-covered seeds—a decidedly female commodity. To this point in the tree’s venerable history, it had produced only pollen—the equivalent of mammalian sperm (a reality that turns ‘pollen allergies’ into something all the more personal).

Yew trees are typically dioecious, meaning that a single tree is either male or female, making this a story of true transformation. In technical terms it is called ‘sequential hermaphroditism,’ and after a cursory internet search it turns out that a surprisingly long list of species take part in male-to-female and female-to-male conversions (called protandry and protogyny, respectively).

The clownfish of Finding Nemo fame is one illustrative example. Journey to a reef, find an anemone, and you are likely to encounter a female clownfish fish, her male partner, and a collection of smaller non-breeding males. Pluck out the female and watch as the large male begins the physical and hormonal transition to womanhood. This anatomical and physiological journey can take a handful of weeks so don’t plan to observe it while holding your breath, but it will happen none-the-less. Faced with this latest landscape of opportunity, the next largest male will mature and become the new female’s breeding partner. Keep removing females and the cascading series of sex changes and maturations will continue until the ocean is void of clownfish.

Whether in tree or marine organism, this is a rather curious anatomical maneuver. But as is always the case, it exists for a compelling reason, and exploring its utility yields advice for us all.

Like everything in biology, this extreme makeover boils down to improved reproductive success. If an attribute increases its owner’s opportunity to get lucky and pass on its genes, it will spread through the population faster than a cute cat meme (well, maybe not quite that fast). On the other hand, if a trait increases an organism’s odds of dying alone, increasingly few, and haplessly unlucky organisms will possess it in the future. In that light, having gender-bending flexibility has increased these species’ odds of survival and reproduction. But why these species?

Turns out a yew tree and a clownfish have more in common than meets the eye. Both are relatively imprisoned in a small geographic area. The tree, of course, can’t uproot and relocate, and clownfish are functionally constrained to the safety of their anemone (venture too far from its protector and it shifts from a question of whether it will be eaten to who will eat it). Faced with such limited mobility, finding a compatible mate can be decidedly difficult. Even if a yew tree is initially lucky in the matchmaking lottery and grows within pollen-tossing distance of an opposite-sex partner, death of either tree leaves the other with untapped biological potential (if you know what I mean). The same goes for clownfish—it would be a lonely anemone if the only female passed away and there wasn’t a replacement plan.

Faced with these biological costs, nature stumbled upon a creative solution, sequential hermaphroditism. In that regard, the ability to change sex is a response to alterable environmental circumstances; a pivot to take full advantage of changing market opportunities. It’s also a story with an important lesson.

Specifically, the environments in which we live and work are also fluid. Our companies conduct business in ever-changing atmospheres. Everything from client preferences, competitor tactics, and corporate culture, to scientific understanding, technological innovation, and economic conditions confront businesses with shifting circumstances. Our businesses, like yew trees and clownfish, can also find themselves occupying rigid niches. Call it corporate typecasting, it occurs when a business’ legacy and historical strategies pigeonholes it into specific market segments. Established practices and products all work great until the market shifts, and then inflexible operators go the way of the dodo bird (just ask your local video store, travel agency, or taxicab drivers’ union).

Given the environmental similarities between modern businesses and the sex-shifting species above, it’s clear that successful companies need a transformation plan to address changes in their operating landscapes. They need an ability to radically reposition themselves, a willingness to pivot, and a readiness to restructure at a moment’s notice. If one thing remains constant, it’s that rigid attachment to a single approach isn’t viable in fluid circumstances.  Transformations are essential.  Just ask a clownfish.

On the flip side, drastic change can be difficult, but if a 4000-year-old tree can do it, so can we.


Copyright 2015 Kurt MacDonald