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MBio. 2013 Jan 2;3(6):e00459-12. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00459-12.

Antibiotic-mediated selection of quorum-sensing-negative Staphylococcus aureus.

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Department of Veterinary Disease Biology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Stigbøjlen, Frederiksberg C, Denmark.


Staphylococcus aureus is a human commensal that at times turns into a serious bacterial pathogen causing life-threatening infections. For the delicate control of virulence, S. aureus employs the agr quorum-sensing system that, via the intracellular effector molecule RNAIII, regulates virulence gene expression. We demonstrate that the presence of the agr locus imposes a fitness cost on S. aureus that is mediated by the expression of RNAIII. Further, we show that exposure to sublethal levels of the antibiotics ciprofloxacin, mupirocin, and rifampin, each targeting separate cellular functions, markedly increases the agr-mediated fitness cost by inducing the expression of RNAIII. Thus, the extensive use of antibiotics in hospitals may explain why agr-negative variants are frequently isolated from hospital-acquired S. aureus infections but rarely found among community-acquired S. aureus strains. Importantly, agr deficiency correlates with increased duration of and mortality due to bacteremia during antibiotic treatment and with a higher frequency of glycopeptide resistance than in agr-carrying strains. Our results provide an explanation for the frequent isolation of agr-defective strains from hospital-acquired S. aureus infections and suggest that the adaptability of S. aureus to antibiotics involves the agr locus.


Staphylococcus aureus is the most frequently isolated pathogen in intensive care units and a common cause of nosocomial infections, resulting in a high degree of morbidity and mortality. Surprisingly, a large fraction (15 to 60%) of hospital-isolated S. aureus strains are agr defective and lack the main quorum-sensing-controlled virulence regulatory system. This is a problem, as agr-defective strains are associated with a mortality level in bacteremic infections and a probability of glycopeptide resistance greater than those of other strains. We show here that agr-negative strains have a fitness advantage over agr-positive strains in the presence of sublethal concentrations of some antibiotics and that the fitness defect of agr-positive cells is caused by antibiotic-mediated expression of the agr effector molecule RNAIII. These results offer an explanation of the frequent isolation of agr-defective S. aureus strains in hospitals and will influence how we treat S. aureus infections.

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