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Facilitation of horizontal transfer of antimicrobial resistance by transformation of antibiotic-induced cell-wall-deficient bacteria

It is universally accepted that the use of antibiotics will lead to antimicrobial resistance. Traditionally, the explanation to this phenomenon was random mutation and horizontal gene transfer and amplification by selective pressure. Subsequently, a second mechanism of antibiotic-induced antimicrobial resistance acquisition was proposed, when Davies et al. discovered that genes encoding antimicrobial resistance are present in bacteria that produce antibiotics, and during the process of antibiotic purification from these antibiotic-producing organisms, remnants of the organisms' DNA that contain antibiotic resistance genes are also co-extracted, and can be recovered in antibiotic preparations. In addition to selective pressure and antimicrobial resistance genes in antibiotic preparations, we hypothesize the third mechanism by which administration of antibiotics leads to antimicrobial resistance. beta-Lactams and glycopeptides damage bacteria by inhibiting cell wall murein synthesis. During the process, cell-wall-deficient forms are generated before the bacteria die. These cell-wall-deficient forms have an increased ability to uptake DNA by transformation. It has been demonstrated that plasmids encoding antimicrobial resistance of Staphylococcus aureus can be transformed to Bacillus subtilis after the B. subtilis was treated with penicillin or lysostaphin, a chemical that damage the cell walls of some Gram-positive bacteria; and that short treatment of Escherichia coli with antibiotics disturbing bacterial cell wall synthesis rendered the cells capable of absorbing foreign DNA. Since bacteria occupying the same ecological niche, such as the lower gastrointestinal tract, is common, bacteria are often incubated with foreign DNA encoding resistance coming from the administration of antibiotics or other bacteria that undergone lysis unrelated to antibiotic-induced killing. As few as a single antibiotic resistant gene is taken up by the cell-wall-deficient form, it will develop into a resistant clone, despite most of the other bacteria are killed by the antibiotic. If the hypothesis is correct, one should reduce the use of antibiotics that perturb bacterial cell wall synthesis, such as beta-lactams, which is the largest group being manufactured, in both humans and animals, in order to reduce the acquisition of antibiotic resistance through this mechanism. In contrast to the old theory that antibiotics only provide selective pressures for the development of antimicrobial resistance, antibiotics by themselves are able to generate the whole chain of events towards the development of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotics provide a source of antimicrobial resistance genes, facilitate the horizontal transfer of antimicrobial resistance genes through facilitating transformation, and provide selective pressures for amplification of the antimicrobial resistance genes. That is perhaps an important reason why antimicrobial resistance is so difficult to control. Further experiments should be performed to delineate which particular type of beta-lactam antibiotics are associated with increase in transformation efficiencies more than the others, so that we can select those less resistance generating beta-lactam for routine usage.

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