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Gene Amplification Uncovers Large Previously Unrecognized Cryptic Antibiotic Resistance Potential in E. coli.

  • Author(s): Suarez, Stacy A;
  • Martiny, Adam C
  • et al.

The activation of unrecognized antibiotic resistance genes in the bacterial cell can give rise to antibiotic resistance without the need for major mutations or horizontal gene transfer. We hypothesize that bacteria harbor an extensive array of diverse cryptic genes that can be activated in response to antibiotics via adaptive resistance. To test this hypothesis, we developed a plasmid assay to randomly manipulate gene copy numbers in Escherichia coli cells and identify genes that conferred resistance when amplified. We then tested for cryptic resistance to 18 antibiotics and identified genes conferring resistance. E. coli could become resistant to 50% of the antibiotics tested, including chloramphenicol, d-cycloserine, polymyxin B, and 6 beta-lactam antibiotics, following this manipulation. Known antibiotic resistance genes comprised 13% of the total identified genes, where 87% were unclassified (cryptic) antibiotic resistance genes. These unclassified genes encoded cell membrane proteins, stress response/DNA repair proteins, transporters, and miscellaneous or hypothetical proteins. Stress response/DNA repair genes have a broad antibiotic resistance potential, as this gene class, in aggregate, conferred cryptic resistance to nearly all resistance-positive antibiotics. We found that antibiotics that are hydrophilic, those that are amphipathic, and those that inhibit the cytoplasmic membrane or cell wall biosynthesis were more likely to induce cryptic resistance in E. coli. This study reveals a diversity of cryptic genes that confer an antibiotic resistance phenotype when present in high copy number. Thus, our assay can identify potential novel resistance genes while also describing which antibiotics are prone to induce cryptic antibiotic resistance in E. coli. IMPORTANCE Predicting where new antibiotic resistance genes will rise is a challenge and is especially important when new antibiotics are developed. Adaptive resistance allows sensitive bacterial cells to become transiently resistant to antibiotics. This provides an opportune time for cells to develop more efficient resistance mechanisms, such as tolerance and permanent resistance to higher antibiotic concentrations. The biochemical diversity harbored within bacterial genomes may lead to the presence of genes that could confer resistance when timely activated. Therefore, it is crucial to understand adaptive resistance to identify potential resistance genes and prolong antibiotics. Here, we investigate cryptic resistance, an adaptive resistance mechanism, and identify unknown (cryptic) antibiotic resistance genes that confer resistance when amplified in a laboratory strain of E. coli. We also pinpoint antibiotic characteristics that are likely to induce cryptic resistance. This study may help detect novel antibiotic resistance genes and provide the foundation to help develop more effective antibiotics.

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