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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jul 31;109(31):12740-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205124109. Epub 2012 Jul 16.

Large mutational target size for rapid emergence of bacterial persistence.

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Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.


Phenotypic heterogeneity displayed by a clonal bacterial population permits a small fraction of cells to survive prolonged exposure to antibiotics. Although first described over 60 y ago, the molecular mechanisms underlying this behavior, termed persistence, remain largely unknown. To systematically explore the genetic basis of persistence, we selected a library of transposon-mutagenized Escherichia coli cells for survival to multiple rounds of lethal ampicillin exposure. Application of microarray-based genetic footprinting revealed a large number of loci that drastically elevate persistence frequency through null mutations and domain disruptions. In one case, the C-terminal disruption of methionyl-tRNA synthetase (MetG) results in a 10,000-fold higher persistence frequency than wild type. We discovered a mechanism by which null mutations in transketolase A (tktA) and glycerol-3-phosphate (G3P) dehydrogenase (glpD) increase persistence through metabolic flux alterations that increase intracellular levels of the growth-inhibitory metabolite methylglyoxal. Systematic double-mutant analyses revealed the genetic network context in which such persistent mutants function. Our findings reveal a large mutational target size for increasing persistence frequency, which has fundamental implications for the emergence of antibiotic tolerance in the clinical setting.

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