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Evol Med Public Health. 2013 Jan;2013(1):65-74. doi: 10.1093/emph/eot003. Epub 2013 Mar 8.

Epistasis between antibiotic resistance mutations drives the evolution of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Author information

1
Department of Medical Parasitology and Infection Biology, Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, 4002 Basel, Switzerland; University of Basel, 4003 Basel, Switzerland and DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research/MRC Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology, Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, 7505 Cape Town, South Africa.

Abstract

BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES:

Multidrug resistant (MDR) bacteria are a growing threat to global health. Studies focusing on single antibiotics have shown that drug resistance is often associated with a fitness cost in the absence of drug. However, little is known about the fitness cost associated with resistance to multiple antibiotics.

METHODOLOGY:

We used Mycobacterium smegmatis as a model for human tuberculosis (TB) and an in vitro competitive fitness assay to explore the combined fitness effects and interaction between mutations conferring resistance to rifampicin (RIF) and ofloxacin (OFX); two of the most important first- and second-line anti-TB drugs, respectively.

RESULTS:

We found that 4 out of 17 M. smegmatis mutants (24%) resistant to RIF and OFX showed a statistically significantly higher or lower competitive fitness than expected when assuming a multiplicative model of fitness effects of each individual mutation. Moreover, 6 out of the 17 double drug-resistant mutants (35%) had a significantly higher fitness than at least one of the corresponding single drug-resistant mutants. The particular combinations of resistance mutations associated with no fitness deficit in M. smegmatis were the most frequent among 151 clinical isolates of MDR and extensively drug-resistant (XDR) Mycobacterium tuberculosis from South Africa.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS:

Our results suggest that epistasis between drug resistance mutations in mycobacteria can lead to MDR strains with no fitness deficit, and that these strains are positively selected in settings with a high burden of drug-resistant TB. Taken together, our findings support a role for epistasis in the evolution and epidemiology of MDR- and XDR-TB.

KEYWORDS:

antimicrobial; epidemiology; infection; microbiology

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