Selection of Resistance at very low Antibiotic Concentrations

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: The extensive medical and agricultural use and misuse of antibiotics during the last 70 years has caused an enrichment of resistant pathogenic bacteria that now severely threatens our capacity to efficiently treat bacterial infections. While is has been known for a long time that high concentrations of antibiotics can select for resistant mutants, less is known about the lower limit at which antibiotics can be selective and enrich for resistant bacteria.In this thesis we investigated the role of low concentrations of antibiotics and heavy metals in the enrichment and evolution of antibiotic resistance. Selection was studied using Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium LT2 with different resistance mutations, different chromosomal resistance genes as well as large conjugative multidrug resistance plasmids. Using very sensitive competition experiments, we showed that antibiotic and heavy metal levels more than several hundred-fold below the minimal inhibitory concentration of susceptible bacteria can enrich for resistant bacteria. Additionally, we demonstrated that subinhibitory levels of antibiotics can select for de novo resistant mutants, and that these conditions can select for a new spectrum of low-cost resistance mutations. The combinatorial effects of antibiotics and heavy metals can cause an enrichment of a multidrug resistance plasmid, even if the concentration of each compound individually is not high enough to cause selection.These results indicate that environments contaminated with low levels of antibiotics and heavy metals such as, for example, sewage water or soil fertilized with sludge or manure, could provide a setting for selection, enrichment and transfer of antibiotic resistance genes. This selection could be a critical step in the transfer of resistance genes from environmental bacteria to human pathogens.