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ISME J. 2016 Mar;10(3):778-87. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2015.154. Epub 2015 Oct 27.

Live to cheat another day: bacterial dormancy facilitates the social exploitation of β-lactamases.

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School of Biological Science, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, UK.
Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College, Ascot, UK.
Specialist Scientific Support Department, Animal and Plant Health Agency, APHA Weybridge, Addlestone, UK.


The breakdown of antibiotics by β-lactamases may be cooperative, since resistant cells can detoxify their environment and facilitate the growth of susceptible neighbours. However, previous studies of this phenomenon have used artificial bacterial vectors or engineered bacteria to increase the secretion of β-lactamases from cells. Here, we investigated whether a broad-spectrum β-lactamase gene carried by a naturally occurring plasmid (pCT) is cooperative under a range of conditions. In ordinary batch culture on solid media, there was little or no evidence that resistant bacteria could protect susceptible cells from ampicillin, although resistant colonies could locally detoxify this growth medium. However, when susceptible cells were inoculated at high densities, late-appearing phenotypically susceptible bacteria grew in the vicinity of resistant colonies. We infer that persisters, cells that have survived antibiotics by undergoing a period of dormancy, founded these satellite colonies. The number of persister colonies was positively correlated with the density of resistant colonies and increased as antibiotic concentrations decreased. We argue that detoxification can be cooperative under a limited range of conditions: if the toxins are bacteriostatic rather than bacteridical; or if susceptible cells invade communities after resistant bacteria; or if dormancy allows susceptible cells to avoid bactericides. Resistance and tolerance were previously thought to be independent solutions for surviving antibiotics. Here, we show that these are interacting strategies: the presence of bacteria adopting one solution can have substantial effects on the fitness of their neighbours.

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