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Bacteria Can Chemically Communicate to Resist Antibiotics: Study

By Nupur Jha on July 7, 2013 8:45 AM EDT 0

A petri dish with bacterial strains of EHEC bacteria (enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli). (Photo: Reuters)

New research by the University of Western Ontario says bacteria can chemically communicate to resist the impact of antibiotics.

Some bacteria have an inbuilt resistance to antibiotics, or genetic changes develop this phenomenon in them.

This study was led by authors Omar El-Halfawy and Miguel Valvano. The team studied a bacterium named Burkholderia cenocepacia (B. cenocepacia), which causes severe infections in people affected with cystic fibrosis (CF) and those with compromised immune systems.

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B. cenocepacia is an environmental bacterium that causes destructive infections in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) or with compromised immune systems.

B. cenocepacia was found to be more resistant to antibiotic polymyxin B compared to other bacteria. The levels of antibiotics required to kill other species of bacteria did not affect this breed of bacterium.

The researchers showed that more antibiotic resistant cells within a bacterial population create and share small molecules with less resistant cells, making them more resistant to antibiotic killing.

These small molecules, which are obtained from altered amino acids, defend not only the more sensitive cells of B. cenocepacia along with other bacteria including a highly prevalent CF pathogen, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli.

"These findings reveal a new mechanism of antimicrobial resistance based on chemical communication among bacterial cells by small molecules that protect against the effect of antibiotics," explained Dr. Valvano, adjunct professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, currently a Professor and Chair at Queen's University Belfast.

"This paves the way to design novel drugs to block the effects of these chemicals, thus effectively reducing the burden of antimicrobial resistance," he further explained.

The researchers aim to produce stronger drugs which would curb the immunity of such disease-causing micro organisms.

"These small molecules can be utilized and produced by almost all bacteria with limited exceptions, so we can regard these small molecules as a universal language that can be understood by most bacteria," said El-Halfawy. "The other way that Burkholderia communicates its high level of resistance is by releasing small proteins to mop up, and bind to lethal antibiotics, thus reducing their effectiveness."

This research was funded by a grant from Cystic Fibrosis Canada and also utilised a Marie Curie Career Integration grant. The researchers are trying to discover new ways to combat this antibiotic repelling phenomenon in bacteria.

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