Multicellular organization in bacteria as a target for drug therapy


*Department of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L3N6. E-mail:


Antibiotic treatments are now reaching the limit of their efficiency, especially in hospitals where certain bacteria are resistant to all available drugs. The development of new drugs against which resistance would be slower to evolve is an important challenge. Recent advances have shown that a potential strategy is to target global properties of infections instead of harming each individual bacterium. Consider an analogy with multicellular organisms. In order to kill an animal two strategies are possible. One can kill each of its cells individually. This is what antibiotics do to get rid of bacterial infections. An alternate way, for instance, is to disorganize the hormonal system of animal's body, leading eventually to its death. This second strategy could also be employed against infections, in place of antibiotics. Bacteria are indeed often involved into coordinated activities within a group, and certain drugs are able to disorganize these activities by blocking bacterial communication. In other words, these drugs are able to target infections as a whole, rather than individuals within infections. The present paper aims at analysing the consequence of this peculiarity on the evolution of bacterial resistance. We use a mathematical model, based on branching process, to calculate the fixation probability of a mutant resistant to this type of drug, and finally to predict the speed of resistance evolution. We show that this evolution is several orders of magnitude slower than in the case of antibiotic resistance. The explanation is as follows. By targeting treatments against adaptive properties of groups instead of individuals, we shift one level up the relevant unit of organization generating resistance. Instead of facing billions of bacteria with a very rapid evolutionary rate, these alternate treatments face a reduced number of larger organisms with lower evolutionary potential. In conclusion, this result leads us to emphasize the strong potential of anti-bacterial treatments aiming at disorganizing social traits of microbes rather than at killing every individual.