The emergence of antibiotic resistance by mutation

Authors


Corresponding author and reprint requests: N. Woodford, ARMRL, Centre for Infections, Health Protection Agency, 61 Colindale Avenue, London NW9 5HT, UK
E-mail: neil.woodford@hpa.org.uk

Abstract

The emergence of mutations in nucleic acids is one of the major factors underlying evolution, providing the working material for natural selection. Most bacteria are haploid for the vast majority of their genes and, coupled with typically short generation times, this allows mutations to emerge and accumulate rapidly, and to effect significant phenotypic changes in what is perceived to be real-time. Not least among these phenotypic changes are those associated with antibiotic resistance. Mechanisms of horizontal gene spread among bacterial strains or species are often considered to be the main mediators of antibiotic resistance. However, mutational resistance has been invaluable in studies of bacterial genetics, and also has primary clinical importance in certain bacterial species, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Helicobacter pylori, or when considering resistance to particular antibiotics, especially to synthetic agents such as fluoroquinolones and oxazolidinones. In addition, mutation is essential for the continued evolution of acquired resistance genes and has, e.g., given rise to over 100 variants of the TEM family of β-lactamases. Hypermutator strains of bacteria, which have mutations in genes affecting DNA repair and replication fidelity, have elevated mutation rates. Mutational resistance emerges de novo more readily in these hypermutable strains, and they also provide a suitable host background for the evolution of acquired resistance genes in vitro. In the clinical setting, hypermutator strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa have been isolated from the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients, but a more general role for hypermutators in the emergence of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance in a wider variety of bacterial pathogens has not yet been proven.

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