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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jul 22;276(1667):2521-30. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0320. Epub 2009 Apr 8.

The role of natural environments in the evolution of resistance traits in pathogenic bacteria.

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  • 1Departamento de Biotecnología Microbiana, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Darwin 3, Cantoblanco, 28049 Madrid, Spain.


Antibiotics are among the most valuable compounds used for fighting human diseases. Unfortunately, pathogenic bacteria have evolved towards resistance. One important and frequently forgotten aspect of antibiotics and their resistance genes is that they evolved in non-clinical (natural) environments before the use of antibiotics by humans. Given that the biosphere is mainly formed by micro-organisms, learning the functional role of antibiotics and their resistance elements in nature has relevant implications both for human health and from an ecological perspective. Recent works have suggested that some antibiotics may serve for signalling purposes at the low concentrations probably found in natural ecosystems, whereas some antibiotic resistance genes were originally selected in their hosts for metabolic purposes or for signal trafficking. However, the high concentrations of antibiotics released in specific habitats (for instance, clinical settings) as a consequence of human activity can shift those functional roles. The pollution of natural ecosystems by antibiotics and resistance genes might have consequences for the evolution of the microbiosphere. Whereas antibiotics produce transient and usually local challenges in microbial communities, antibiotic resistance genes present in gene-transfer units can spread in nature with consequences for human health and the evolution of environmental microbiota that are largely ignored.

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