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PLoS Genet. 2013 Nov;9(11):e1003968. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003968. Epub 2013 Nov 14.

Elevated mutagenesis does not explain the increased frequency of antibiotic resistant mutants in starved aging colonies.

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  • 1Rachel & Menachem Mendelovitch Evolutionary Processes of Mutation & Natural Selection Research Laboratory, Department of Genetics, the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel.


The frequency of mutants resistant to the antibiotic rifampicin has been shown to increase in aging (starved), compared to young colonies of Escherichia coli. These increases in resistance frequency occur in the absence of any antibiotic exposure, and similar increases have also been observed in response to additional growth limiting conditions. Understanding the causes of such increases in the frequency of resistance is important for understanding the dynamics of antibiotic resistance emergence and spread. Increased frequency of rifampicin resistant mutants in aging colonies is cited widely as evidence of stress-induced mutagenesis (SIM), a mechanism thought to allow bacteria to increase mutation rates upon exposure to growth-limiting stresses. At the same time it has been demonstrated that some rifampicin resistant mutants are relatively fitter in aging compared to young colonies, indicating that natural selection may also contribute to increased frequency of rifampicin resistance in aging colonies. Here, we demonstrate that the frequency of mutants resistant to both rifampicin and an additional antibiotic (nalidixic-acid) significantly increases in aging compared to young colonies of a lab strain of Escherichia coli. We then use whole genome sequencing to demonstrate conclusively that SIM cannot explain the observed magnitude of increased frequency of resistance to these two antibiotics. We further demonstrate that, as was previously shown for rifampicin resistance mutations, mutations conferring nalidixic acid resistance can also increase fitness in aging compared to young colonies. Our results show that increases in the frequency of antibiotic resistant mutants in aging colonies cannot be seen as evidence of SIM. Furthermore, they demonstrate that natural selection likely contributes to increases in the frequency of certain antibiotic resistance mutations, even when no selection is exerted due to the presence of antibiotics.

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