Bacteria can evolve resistance more quickly when stronger antibiotics are used, reveal findings from new scientific research published today in the journal PLoS Biology. Researchers from the University of Exeter and Kiel University in Germany treated E. coli with different combinations of antibiotics in laboratory experiments.
Unexpectedly they found that the rate of evolution of antibiotic resistance speeds up when potent treatments are given because resistant bacterial cells flourish most during the most aggressive therapies.
This happens because too potent a treatment eliminates the non-resistant cells, creating a lack of competition that allows resistant bacteria to multiply quickly. Those cells go on to create copies of resistance genes that help them rapidly reduce the effectiveness of the drugs. In tests this effect could even cause E.coli to grow fastest in the most aggressive antibiotic treatments.
In addition to evolution experiments, the results of this Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) funded research were confirmed using mathematical models and whole-genome sequencing of resistant and non-resistant E. coli.
Professor Robert Beardmore, EPSRC Research Fellow from the University of Exeter said: "We were surprised by how quickly the bacteria evolved resistance. We nearly stopped the experiments because we didn't think some of the treatments should be losing potency that fast, sometimes within a day. But we now know that the bacteria remaining after the initial treatment have duplicated specific areas of their genome containing large numbers of resistance genes. These gene copies appear more quickly when the antibiotics are combined, resulting in the rapid evolution of very resistant bacteria."
"Designing new treatments to prevent antibiotic resistance is not easy, as this research shows, and governments may need to increase their funding for antibiotics research if scientists are to be able to keep pace with the rapid evolution of bacterial pathogens that cause disease."