Antibiotic resistance is a rising threat around the world that could mean the return of killer diseases, and make the kind of surgery that we take for granted today a risky, fraught process.
For decades, biologists have believed that over-exposure to antibiotics is the main culprit for the development of drug resistance in bacteria, caused by excessive and inappropriate of antibiotics.
However, new research conducted by Professor Mary Dunlop, assistant professor at Boston University's Biomedical Engineering Department, and Imane El Meouche, a post-doctoral scholar in Dunlop's lab, suggests that bacteria can also develop resistance to antibiotics without even being exposed to antibiotics.
According to the researchers, many bacteria use short-term survival techniques to develop drug resistance over a longer period of time.
Bacteria protect themselves from toxins and antibiotics naturally by using what is known as ‘efflux pumps', which push toxins out of the cell.
However, these pumps come with their own disadvantages for the bacteria: they use a lot of energy and also compromise the cell membrane, thereby slowing the growth of the cell. To balance the cost of pump production and survival reward, bacteria "hedge their bets by diversifying the number of pumps different cells express".
The cells containing more efflux pumps not only become more resistant to antibiotics but can also perform mutation to exhibit improved drug resistance capability.
"Expression of pumps may be a stepping stone to drug resistance," claimed Dunlop.
The researchers confirmed their results through experiments that involved genetically engineering bacteria to express varying levels of efflux pumps. They also investigated the relationship between efflux pump expression, a DNA repair enzyme, cell growth rate, and MutS.
The results suggested that even those bacteria that were never exposed to antibiotics were nevertheless prone to mutations causing drug resistance.
The detailed findings of the study are published in the journal Science.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is expected to kill thousands of people across the world in the coming years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned that around 90,000 people will die in the UK alone over the next 30 years due to drug-resistant super bugs.
These bugs could also kill around 2.4 million people across Australia, Europe, and North America by 2050 unless more steps are taken to limit drug-resistant super bugs.
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