New Genetic Insights Show How Tuberculosis May Be Evolving to Become More Dangerous

Today most people in the richer parts of the world think of tuberculosis, if they think of it at all, as a ghost of history. Throughout ancient times the tenacious bacterial infection consumed the bodies of untold millions, rich and poor, filling their lungs with bloody sputum. As TB spread in the centuries that followed, it continued to attack across economic and class lines, affecting both the famous and the obscure. Among its better-known victims: poet Manuel Bandeira, writers Emily and Anne Brontë, and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty. By the early 20th century humanity had begun fighting back with public health campaigns, improved living standards, and eventually antibiotics and a modestly effective vaccine. Although in 2011 TB sickened nearly nine million people, killing 1.4 million of them, mostly in the poorer regions of the globe, the mortality rate has nonetheless fallen by more than a third since 1990. Things are looking up—or so it may seem.

New genetic research, however, suggests that the bacterium responsible for TB could be poised to emerge stronger and more deadly than ever before—and not just because some strains have become resistant to treatment with the standard set of antibiotics. A small but increasingly influential group of investigators believes that the microbe, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, may have evolved along an unexpected and particularly dangerous path. The scientists have discovered that TB can be divided into seven families of genetically related strains, at least one of which is surprisingly virulent, prone to drug resistance and especially well suited to spreading disease in our increasingly interconnected, densely populated world.