[This post was originally published at webeasties.wordpress.com]

Antibiotics are awesome. They can be credited with saving more human life than any other invention and have been one of the best advancements in public health second only (maybe) to sanitation. But, as with all things pathogen related, the microbes are fighting back. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise, and diseases like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) have been making the rounds in hospitals and causing a significant number of deaths.

Antibiotic resistance arises due to random mutation and natural selection. If there are a few hundred billion bugs in an infection, and even one has a slight growth advantage in the presence of an antibiotic, that bug will divide, pass on it’s beneficial mutation to its offspring while the less fortunate die off, and open the door for even more mutations and increased resistance down the road. At least, that’s what we thought.

A new paper in the journal Nature shows that the resistant strains can actually cooperate with each other to increase the resistance of the whole population:

This work establishes a population-based resistance mechanism constituting a form of kin selection whereby a small number of resistant mutants can, at some cost to themselves, provide protection to other, more vulnerable, cells, enhancing the survival capacity of the overall population in stressful environments.

These researchers took a strain of bacteria that was sensitive to the antibiotic norfloxacin. They gave the population a sub-lethal does of the antibiotic (it slowed them down, but didn’t kill them entirely), and watched resistance develop. After a few days, the bugs were able to grow at a normal rate. So they upped the concentration of antibiotic, and and watched as the bugs devised new ways of fighting it.

Bacterial charity figure

The little green dotted lines show the concentration of the antibiotic as the stepped it up over the course of a couple weeks. The red line shows the resistance of the total population, and it increases with a slight lag behind when the dose is increased. That part isn’t all that surprising – we know bacteria can evolve pretty quick. The interesting part is that they took individual bacteria out of these cultures and assessed how good they were at resisting norfloxacin. If the model I talked about in the beginning were true, you would expect only the most resistant individuals to survive, and the rest to fall by the wayside. And you’d expect each individual to have the same resistance as the total group. But that’s not what they found.

Look at the grey bars in that graph – those represent the resistance levels of individual bacteria pulled from the main culture. Each individual isolate they pulled had a far lower resistance than the population as a whole. This means that the bacteria must be cooperating with each other in order to survive. Cooperation amongst bacteria isn’t a new idea, but this is the first time that it’s been directly shown with respect to antibiotic resistance. I’m not sure this research necessarily helps us design better antibiotics or prevent resistance, but it’s an important reminder that the bugs are pretty smart – we need to be smarter to defeat them.