Eleven years ago, two scientists made a bet. One scientist wagered that a new type of antimicrobial agent, called antimicrobial peptides, would not elicit resistance from bacterial populations which were treated with the drugs. Antimicrobial peptides are short proteins (typically 15-50 amino acids in length) that are often positively charged. They are also a part of our body’s own innate immune system, and present in other species from bacteria to plants. It is thought that these peptides work primarily by disrupting the integrity of the bacterial cell, often by poking holes in them. Sometimes they work with the host to ramp up the immune response and overwhelm the invading microbe. Because the peptides are frequently targeted at the bacterial cell wall structure, it was thought that resistance to these drugs would require a fundamental change in membrane structure, making it an exceedingly rare event. Therefore, these antimicrobial peptides might make an excellent weapon in the fight against multiply drug-resistant bacteria.

Additionally, the remarkable diversity of these peptides, combined with the presence of multiple types of peptides with different mechanisms of action present at the infection site, rendered unlikely the evolution of resistance to these molecules (or so some reasoning went). However, evolutionary biologists have pointed out that therapeutic use of these peptides would differ from natural exposure: concentration would be significantly higher, and a larger number of microbes would be exposed. Additionally, resistance to these peptides has been detailed in a few instances. For example, resistance to antimicrobial peptides has been shown to be essential for virulence in Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella species, but we didn’t *witness* that resistance develop–therefore, it might simply be that those species have physiological properties that render them naturally resistant to many of these peptides, and were never susceptible in the first place.

The doubter of resistance, and the bet instigator, was Michael Zasloff of Georgetown University, who wrote in a 2002 review of antimicrobial peptides:

Studies both in the laboratory and in the clinic confirm that emergence of resistance against antimicrobial peptides is less probable than observed for conventional antibiotics, and provides the impetus to develop antimicrobial peptides, both natural and laboratory conceived, into therapeutically useful agents.

Certainly in the short term, resistance may be unlikely to evolve for reasons described above. However, if these peptides are used over an extended period of time, could the mutations necessary to confer resistance accumulate? This was the question asked in a new study by Dr. Zasloff along with colleagues Gabriel Perron and Graham Bell. Following publication of his 2002 paper where he called evolution of resistance to these peptides “improbable,” Bell challenged Zasloff to test this theory. Zasloff took him up on the offer, and they published their results in Proceedings of the Royal Society

The result?

Zasloff had egg on his face. Resistance not only evolved, but it evolved independently in almost every instance they tested (using E. coli and Pseudomonas species), taking only 600-700 generations–a relative blip in microbial time. Oops.

Well, everything old is new again. A very similar claim has been making the rounds recently, originating from the press release for a new paper claiming to have found bacteria’s “Achilles’ heel,” advancing the claim that “Because new drugs will not need to enter the bacteria itself, we hope that the bacteria will not be able to develop drug resistance in future.”  A grand claim, but history suggests otherwise. It was argued that bacteria could not evolve resistance to bacteriophage, as the ancient interaction between viruses and their bacterial hosts certainly must have already exploited and overcome any available defense. Now a plethora of resistance mechanisms are known.

Alexander Fleming, who won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, tried to sound the warning that the usefulness of antibiotics would be short-lived as bacteria adapted, but his warnings were (and still are?) largely ignored. There is no “magic bullet;” there are only temporary solutions, and we should have learned by now not to underestimate our bacterial companions.

Part of this post previously published here.


  1. #1 Lyle
    July 24, 2014

    The doubters about resistance clearly did not read Darwin very well. In particular the sections about artificial selection. For that is what drug resistance is. We modify the environment and effectively select for organisms that can live in the presence of the drug. Essentially it is just survival of the fittest in a modified environment.