Science 4 min read

Bug That Spreads Antibiotic Resistance to Other Microbes Discovered

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Antibiotic resistance has become a significant concern among biologists and health professionals across the world. And that’s not surprising.

Antibiotics may be the single most vital medication in modern medicine. Not only are they used to treat infectious diseases, but doctors also administer them pre-emptively after surgery.

Overall, antibiotics have contributed to raising the average life expectancy across the globe by an average of 20 years.

But, the efficacy of the medication has been on a downward spiral, thanks to antibiotic resistance. Infectious bacteria can mutate and multiply in a way that makes them resistant to the most potent antibiotic.

Now researchers at the University of Bath have revealed an organism that spreads antibiotic resistance to other microbes.

Creating an Antibiotic Resistance Superbug

Back in 2012, a 35-year old São Paulo man was admitted into the hospital for skin cancer and deadly bacterial infection. Along with chemotherapy treatment, the doctors placed him on a course of antibiotics.

At first, the bacteria-killing medication seemed to be working. However, the microbe-driven fever returned within four weeks, and the patient now had the popular superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Now, the health professionals had to turn to a powerful antibiotic, Vancomycin, to fight the strain of bacteria. Ideally, MRSA had no natural defense against Vancomycin, but that changed by August of the same year.

The bacteria strand developed resistance against the potent antibiotic and rendered the treatment ineffective.

How is this possible?

As the scientists soon discover, the MRSA did not acquire resistance through simple mutation like other strands. Instead, it received genetic code with instructions for proteins to keep the bacteria safe from antibiotics.

This raises an essential question: where did the DNA come from?

Enter the Enterococcus faecalis, a seemingly harmless bacteria that live happily in our guts, that turned out to be an antibiotic resistance dealer.

How A Good Bacteria Swaps Information With the Enemy

When we are on antibiotics, the treatment sweeps away all bacteria, including the gut microbiome. But the faecalis, with a natural resistance mechanism in its DNA, would survive the antibiotic’s onslaught.

Not only would the Faecalis and its resistant peers would thrive, but it would ultimately multiply to cover newly available space in the gut. Eventually, they’ll come in contact with a potential disease-causing counterpart and exchange information.

In a process known as horizontal gene transfer, copies of DNA from the Faecalis move to the potentially dangerous bacteria cell. That’s when the seemingly harmless bacteria shared the information on how to survive antibiotics.

According to the researchers, during its evolutionary journey, E. faecalis has managed to take its ability as an antibiotics resistance dealer to the next level. Here is how.

How the Faecalis Became a Dealer of Antibiotic Resistance

Bacteria use the CRISPR-cas9 system to chop viral DNA into pieces before it causes any harm. That way, they could protect themselves from unwanted or potentially dangerous genetic code.

E. faecalis, on the other hand, did the opposite. It sacrificed this defense mechanism to allow all manner of DNA enters its cell wall.

This gave the bacteria an ability to gain and exchange genetic knowledge with their peers. And during such swapping, the faecalis bestowed vancomycin resistance upon MRSA.

Now the Bath researchers are trying to understand the microbe’s intrinsic resistance.

The authors of the study, Sali Morris  and James S. Horton of the University of Bath, wrote:

“Frustratingly, faecalis often has an ace up its sleeve when challenged by antibiotics. If we delete an integral piece of DNA, for example, we often find that faecalis has another section of DNA that can perform the same role, providing antibiotic resistance regardless.”

With that said, the researchers are confident that they would identify the genetic code that’s essential for E. faecalis survival. With this knowledge, they would finally be able to remove the dealer from the game.

Read More: New Micro-Needle Skin Patch Can Measure Antibiotics in the Blood

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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