In the 1940s, the mass production of penicillin led to a sensational reduction in illness and death from bacterial disease. A resulting golden era of bacterial research emerged with new classes of antibiotics, and by 1969, US Surgeon General William H. Stewart told Congress: "The time has come to close the book on infectious disease."

As a result, fewer new students specialized in bacterial physiology, and federal funders shifted their focus to more immediately pressing diseases, as did many pharmaceutical companies. But while everyone forgot about the bacteria, the bacteria didn't completely abandon their unwilling hosts.

Today, nearly all strains of Staphylococcus aureus, an organism that causes skin, bone, lung, and bloodstream infections, now resist penicillin. Many do the same to methicillin, and some even resist vancomycin, long considered the only uniformly effective drug for methicillin-resistant S. aureus, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC)....

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