It has long been understood that bacteria adapt to the antibiotic treatments used against them. This is a simple instance of natural selection: strains that have randomly acquired the ability to resist antibiotics are fit to survive in the environment of which those drugs are a part, as they continue their unending odyssey from one host organism (patient) to the next. But one aspect of this old story sounds dramatic, even scary. One resistance mechanism bacteria evolve, called “necrosignaling,” involves some bacteria warning others of the presence of the antibiotic.
A team of microbiologists at the University of Texas studied necrosignaling in E. coli. The first cells exposed to the antibiotic die, and in dying they release a protein known as AcrA. Other cells in the colony, receiving this signal, activate their RND efflux pumps, intra-cellular structures that discharge the antibiotic. This warning, then, gives the rest of the colony a chance to survive — from the patients’ point of view, it gives the treatment a chance to fail.
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The report suggests that a similar process exists in many “clinically important bacteria” and that research should focus on disrupting the signaling process in order to preserve the efficacy of antibiotics.