Some bacteria hibernate to avoid antibiotic attack

Some pathogenic bacteria have a surprising tactic to avoid being attacked by antibiotics: hibernating until the threat passes.

While it is no secret that pathogenic bacteria are able to develop antibiotic resistance, it’s not so well known that some, including some of nature’s nastiest pathogens, resist antibiotics and escape antibiotic treatments in a different way: hibernation.

Researchers say they’ve discovered a small portion of pathogenic bacteria that hide out in a dormant state, until the danger antibiotics pose to them passes. Then, when it’s deemed safe, they wake up and resume their regular functions.

“We studied E. coli bacteria from urinary tract infections that had been treated with antibiotics and were supposedly under control. In time, the bacteria re-awoke and began to spread once again,” Kenn Gerdes, a professor in the biology department at the University of Copenhagen.

Antibiotics usually target a bacteria cell’s ability to grow, which means that a hibernating bacterium is exempt from attack.

“A bacterium in hibernation is not resistant. It is temporarily tolerant because it stops growing, which allows it to survive the effects of an antibiotic,” Gerdes says.

Genetically, hibernating bacteria share the same characteristics as other bacteria in a given population, an E. coli population for example. So, for now, there are no clear rules as to why certain bacteria survive antibiotics by going dormant while others do not.

As reported in Science Signaling, researchers used a new method to study what happens in the disease-causing cells that go dormant and hide in the body.

They found an enzyme in dormant bacteria that is responsible for catalyzing hibernation, which allows the bacteria to avoid attack.

“The discovery of this enzyme is a good foundation for the future development of a substance capable of combating dormant bacteria cells,” Gerdes says. But more work is necessary to develop new antibiotics.

“The enzyme triggers a ‘survival program’ that almost all disease-causing bacteria deploy to survive in the wild and resist antibiotics in the body. Developing an antibiotic that targets this general program would be a major advance,” Gerdes explains.

Researchers from the University of Tübingen contributed to the work.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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