Implications of stress-induced genetic variation for minimizing multidrug resistance in bacteria

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Background: Antibiotic resistance in bacterial infections is a growing threat to public health. Recent evidence shows that when exposed to stressful conditions, some bacteria perform higher rates of horizontal gene transfer and mutation, and thus acquire antibiotic resistance more rapidly.Methods: We incorporate this new notion into a mathematical model for the emergence of antibiotic multi-resistance in a hospital setting.Results: We show that when stress has a considerable effect on genetic variation, the emergence of antibiotic resistance is dramatically affected. A strategy in which patients receive a combination of antibiotics (combining) is expected to facilitate the emergence of multi-resistant bacteria when genetic variation is stress-induced. The preference between a strategy in which one of two effective drugs is assigned randomly to each patient (mixing), and a strategy where only one drug is administered for a specific period of time (cycling) is determined by the resistance acquisition mechanisms. We discuss several features of the mechanisms by which stress affects variation and predict the conditions for success of different antibiotic treatment strategies.Conclusions: These findings should encourage research on the mechanisms of stress-induced genetic variation and establish the importance of incorporating data about these mechanisms when considering antibiotic treatment strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number89
JournalBMC Medicine
StatePublished - 13 Aug 2012


  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Evolution
  • HGT
  • Mathematical model
  • Stress induced mutagenesis


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