Field of Science

Lethal mutagenesis

Drugs fight bacteria and viruses by killing them fast, but the problem is that this eventually leads to the microbes evolving resistance to the drug. However, if another drug was given that increases the mutation rate of the microbe, perhaps this would lead them to die out, since most mutations are harmful?

Carl Zimmer interviews several scientists in The New York Times on the matter of lethal mutagenesis, and the question of whether the microbes could evolve resistance to the mutagenic drug is raised.


  1. This makes a lot of sense. Even playing around with a model as simple as the WEASEL program, if you crank up the mutation rate too high then it has difficulty converging. It's too bad there are so many practical problems.

    They talk about a risk of cancer, which certainly makes sense with a mutagen... but could the same principle potentially be used against cancer? One of the problems with really aggressive chemo is that you wind up killing 90% of the cancer, and leaving the 10% that is chemo-resistant (hence the more modern approaches to chemo that seek to keep the tumor from increasing in size but don't actually try to eliminate it). But if you could keep the mutation rate so high that it can't effectively propagate a chemo-resistant line, then conceivably you could go back to a more aggressive approach.

    I suppose the trick would be ensuring the bulk of the mutagenesis takes place in the cancer cells, rather than the healthy cells. Otherwise, even though you prevent chemo-resistant cancer from taking hold, you effectively make sure the body keeps producing new cancer cells via mutation of healthy cells. D'oh...

  2. A whole lot of medical problems would be solved if medicine could be directed accurately within the body. This tiny cube is meant to do that: Tiny self-assembling cubes could carry medicine, cell therapy.


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