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MBio. 2011 Sep 20;2(5). pii: e00187-11. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00187-11. Print 2011.

A novel mechanism of high-level, broad-spectrum antibiotic resistance caused by a single base pair change in Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


The MtrC-MtrD-MtrE multidrug efflux pump of Neisseria gonorrhoeae confers resistance to a diverse array of antimicrobial agents by transporting these toxic compounds out of the gonococcus. Frequently in gonococcal strains, the expression of the mtrCDE operon is differentially regulated by both a repressor, MtrR, and an activator, MtrA. The mtrR gene lies 250 bp upstream of and is transcribed divergently from the mtrCDE operon. Previous research has shown that mutations in the mtrR coding region and in the mtrR-mtrCDE intergenic region increase levels of gonococcal antibiotic resistance and in vivo fitness. Recently, a C-to-T transition mutation 120 bp upstream of the mtrC start codon, termed mtr₁₂₀, was identified in strain MS11 and shown to be sufficient to confer high levels of antimicrobial resistance when introduced into strain FA19. Here we report that this mutation results in a consensus -10 element and that its presence generates a novel promoter for mtrCDE transcription. This newly generated promoter was found to be stronger than the wild-type promoter and does not appear to be subject to MtrR repression or MtrA activation. Although rare, the mtr₁₂₀ mutation was identified in an additional clinical isolate during sequence analysis of antibiotic-resistant strains cultured from patients with gonococcal infections. We propose that cis-acting mutations can develop in gonococci that significantly alter the regulation of the mtrCDE operon and result in increased resistance to antimicrobials.


Gonorrhea is the second most prevalent sexually transmitted bacterial infection and a worldwide public health concern. As there is currently no vaccine against Neisseria gonorrhoeae, appropriate diagnostics and subsequent antibiotic therapy remain the primary means of infection control. However, the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment is constantly challenged by the emergence of resistant strains, mandating a thorough understanding of resistance mechanisms to aid in the development of new antimicrobial therapies and genetic methods for antimicrobial resistance testing. This study was undertaken to characterize a novel mechanism of antibiotic resistance regulation in N. gonorrhoeae. Here we show that a single base pair mutation generates a second, stronger promoter for mtrCDE transcription that acts independently of the known efflux system regulators and results in high-level antimicrobial resistance.

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