Infectious Bacteria Stealthily Avoid Antibiotics Through “Hibernation”

The term “superbug” refers to bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotics normally used to get rid of them. Now, a new study suggests that the term is more fitting than scientists previously realized. It turns out that these infectious bacteria stealthily “hibernate” during antibiotic treatment, which further prevents the medications from killing the bugs. [1]

Almost all infectious bacteria develop some antibiotic-resistant traits, so a substantial fraction of bacteria survive a course of antibiotics. But a small number of bacteria, including some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens, can resist antibiotics without needing these traits.

Read: The Problem of Antibiotic Resistance is Getting Much Worse

A small portion of pathogenic bacteria can survive a course of antibiotics by lying dormant until the danger passes. They simply hibernate, according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen. Once a person finishes taking their medication, these bacteria “wake up” and go back to being nasty, disease-causing bugs.

Professor Kenn Gerdes of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology said:

“We studied E. coli bacteria from urinary tract infections that had been treated with antibiotics and were supposedly under control. In time, the bacteria re-awoke and began to spread once again.”

Antibiotics typically work by targeting a bacteria cell’s ability to grow, which means that a hibernating bacterium remains untouched by the drugs. It is not technically resistant.

Gerdes explained:

“It is temporarily tolerant because it stops growing, which allows it to survive the effects of an antibiotic.”

It’s still a mystery why some bacteria go into a dormant stage while others don’t, considering hibernating bacteria share the same genetic characteristics as other bacteria in a given population.

“Antibiotics are usually directed at the bacterial growth processes. Genetically, these bacteria have all the same features of the other bacteria in the population. It is rare and affects only 1 in 10,000 to 1 million cells. That makes it hard to investigate.” [2]

The researchers found that an enzyme in dormant bacteria is responsible for putting bacteria into a dormant state, which allows them to avoid being attacked. But right now it’s anyone’s guess as to why this enzyme gets triggered in the rare bacterium. [1]

Gerdes said:

“The discovery of this enzyme is a good foundation for the future development of a substance capable of combatting dormant bacteria cells.”

Read: 5 Natural Antibiotic Solutions for Antibiotic-Resistant Infections

Much more research – and funding – is needed to understand why some bacteria become dormant, but it will hopefully lead to more effective antibiotics in the future.

Gerdes said:

“The enzyme triggers a ‘survival program’ that almost all disease-causing bacteria deploy to survive in the wild and resist antibiotics in the body. Developing an antibiotic that targets this general program would be a major advance.”

The study is published in the journal Science Signaling.


[1] Science Daily

[2] Phys

New “Nightmare” Bacteria has Been Popping up Around the U.S.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said earlier this year that more than 200 rare “nightmare” antibiotic-resistant genes were found during testing in 2017.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, expressed shock at the findings, saying:

“I was surprised by the numbers we found. Two million Americans get infections from antibiotic resistance, and 23,000 die from those infections each year.”

The authors write in the report that the bacteria haven’t spread widely, but they found a variety of resistant germs in every state.

The agency tested for 2 of the most well-known superbugs: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), and carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa (CRPA) bacteria. [2]

What the CDC Testing Found

The CDC tested 5,776 isolates of antibiotic-resistant germs from hospitals and nursing homes and discovered that about 1 in 4 had a gene that helped spread its resistance, while 221 bacteria contained “an especially rare resistance gene,” according to Schuchat.

Read: Antimicrobial Resistance Could Be a “Bigger Threat than Cancer” by 2050

Follow-up screening revealed that nearly 1 in every 10 contacts also tested positive. Those individuals had “silent” infections. Schuchat explained this means that “the unusual resistance has spread to other patients and could have continued spreading if left undetected.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how frequently asymptomatic patients spread the disease to uninfected people. [1] [3]

The rare genes were discovered in isolates gathered in 27 states from infection samples, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and urinary tract infections (UTIs). [1]

Doctors and scientists are working to halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs before they even start, comparing them to a rapidly-consuming wildfire that’s difficult to bring under control. [3]

As part of the effort, the CDC recently established the Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network (ARLN), which consists of labs across the country that test patients’ samples for highly resistant-bacteria and track antibiotic-resistant bugs as they pop up.

Read: 2 Main Contributors to the Antibiotic-Resistance Crisis

Fortunately, Schuchat said, the CDC’s aggressive strategy to identify, track, and contain the germs has been largely successful and appears to have stopped their spread.

The agency’s strategy involves rapidly identifying superbugs at facilities, assessing those facilities for gaps in infection control, screening other patients to identify any “silent” carriers, and continuing these steps until they can put on lock on further transmission of the germs.

A mathematical model utilized by the scientists shows that implementing this strategy could prevent as many as 1,600 new CRE infections in 3 years. That’s a 76% drop in cases.

Schuchat said:

“We need to do more, and we need to do it faster and earlier with each new antibiotic-resistance threat.”


[1] CNN

[2] NBC News

[3] Live Science