Previous research has showed that bacteria can go into a kind of dormant stage while they attempt to wait out antibiotic treatments. Now, researchers have found that this type of dormancy can help bacteria gain resistance to antibiotics. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Science.
A few years ago, scientists learned that bacteria can go to “sleep” during antibiotic treatment. Doctors responded by prescribing antibiotics for longer, advising patients to continue taking the medication even if they begin to feel better. Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem that can lead to the evolution of “superbugs” that aren’t affected by traditional antibiotic medicine. This type of resistance can kill people with bacterial infections because the process of finding new antibiotics takes time.
Researchers from the Hebrew University’s Racah Institute of Physics used mathematical models to simulate bacterial populations undergoing exposure to antibiotics. The team found that the dormancy period could help bacteria bide their time until they develop new mutations. Given enough time, bacteria can “wake up” and rapidly gain mutations that grant them tolerance to antibiotics. These mutations quickly spread through the entire bacterial population, causing serious problems for a patient who might be in the middle of antibiotic treatment. The researchers tried a large number of different antibiotics and got the same results each time. Bacteria can go dormant in response to lethal antibiotics, helping them gain mutations that give them enough antibiotic tolerance to evolve mechanisms that grant them full resistance.
The team’s findings show that bacteria have yet another way of quickly developing antibiotic resistance. By entering a dormant state, the bacteria can wait out antibiotic treatments and develop a basic tolerance. From there, they can quickly develop mutations that lead to complete tolerance. To make matters worse, these mutations are rapidly shared with other bacteria in the colony. Scientists may be able to use this information to develop more effective antibacterial medications.
Levin-Reisman et al. Antibiotic tolerance facilitates the evolution of resistance. Science (2017).