Publications and Research

Document Type


Publication Date



In the struggle with antibiotic resistance, we are losing. There is now a serious threat of moving into a postantibiotic world. High levels of resistance, in terms of both frequency and strength, have evolved against all clinically approved antibiotics worldwide. The usable life span of new clinically approved antibiotics is typically less than a decade before resistance reaches frequencies so high as to require only guarded usage. However, microbes have produced antibiotics for millennia without resistance becoming an existential issue. If resistance is the inevitable consequence of antibiotic usage, as has been the human experience, why has it not become an issue for microbes as well, especially since resistance genes are as prevalent in nature as the genes responsible for antibiotic production? Here, we ask how antibiotics can exist given the almost ubiquitous presence of resistance genes in the very microbes that have produced and used antibiotics since before humans walked the planet. We find that the context of both production and usage of antibiotics by microbes may be key to understanding how resistance is managed over time, with antibiotic synthesis and resistance existing in a paired relationship, much like a cipher and key, that impacts microbial community assembly. Finally, we put forward the cohesive, ecologically based “secret society” hypothesis to explain the longevity of antibiotics in nature.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Included in

Microbiology Commons



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.