Antibiotic resistance is by now a well-known phenomenon. Resistance is carried in both antibiotic producing bacteria to protect themselves from their own weaponry, and the soil bacteria they attack, in an attempt to defend themselves. The sudden influx of pharmaceutical antibiotics has encouraged the spread of resistance to human pathogenic strains, leading to the so-called 'superbugs' seen in the media such as MRSA and vancomycin-resistant C. difficile.
However researchers at Harvard found that not only are some bacteria able to neutralise the threat of antibiotic resistance, they actually use antibiotics as a food source. Not only that, but they were capable of using antibiotics as the sole carbon source. The table below (taken from the reference at the end of the post) shows the survival of bacteria on antibiotics using samples from three different types of soil, Farmland (F), Urban (U) and Pristine (P - soil from non urban areas with minimal human contact for 100 years):
The antibiotics used include natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic molecules, all all of which could be used by bacterial species as a carbon source. Even more interestingly (or alarmingly) the antibiotics were at concentrations of 1g/litre, 50 times higher than the concentration normally used to test for resistance.
The 'pristine' soil is the one that the researchers found the most interesting, as the general expectation was that this area would contain fewer antibiotic-eating bacteria, having had minimal interaction with people and pharmaceutical antibiotics. However the data showed no noticeable difference, despite not being in contact with human-designed antibiotics, the bacteria are meeting plenty of bacterial-based antibiotics, and adapting to use them for food.
The big question of course is Will it Spread? Around the quarters of the isolated strains belonged to orders containing clinically relevant strains such as Salmonella and E. coli, meaning that hypothetically at least antibiotic consumption should be able to spread. On the other hand, actual consumption of antibiotics is unlikely to provide a greater evolutionary advantage than just resistance, and will confer a larger metabolic load on the bacteria. Although the pathways of antibiotic metabolism have not yet been fully determined, the first few steps seem to be similar to well-known resistance mechanisms (particularly in penicillin consumption). One conclusion, therefore, is that only part of the metabolic pathway would be (or already has been) passed on to pathogenic organisms, enough to provide resistance without placing unnecessary metabolic burdens on the cell.
Hat tip to Byte Size Biology for alerting me to the paper.
Dantas, G., Sommer, M., Oluwasegun, R., & Church, G. (2008). Bacteria Subsisting on Antibiotics Science, 320 (5872), 100-103 DOI: 10.1126/science.1155157
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