"Listening" to Sleeping Bacteria May Help Scientists Create a Solution to Drug-Resistant Infections
Wed, April 14, 2021

"Listening" to Sleeping Bacteria May Help Scientists Create a Solution to Drug-Resistant Infections

Scientists at the University of Tartu in Estonia have discovered ways that allow them to "listen" to sleeping bacteria. Their work, published in the journal Scientific Reports, explains bacteria's ability to listen to each other and what it means for medicine. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123RF

 

Scientists at the University of Tartu in Estonia have discovered ways that allow them to "listen" to sleeping bacteria. Their work, published in the journal Scientific Reports, explains bacteria's ability to listen to each other and what it means for medicine.

They hope the discovery will help them create a solution for chronic infections that are untreatable when using antibiotics. Such advancement will also heed the call for urgent action to address the antimicrobial resistance crisis, especially as common diseases become increasingly resistant to treatments.


Bacterial Espionage

Bacteria enter a sleep-like state when their metabolism slows down due to food shortage. Such a state makes bacteria resilient to environmental conditions and may even help them live through catastrophic situations.

Only when there is enough food again that all bacteria wake up and start to multiply. However, insufficient and low-quality food might make them hesitant. A particular sign for bacteria to know that an environment is sufficiently good for growth and multiplication is if other bacteria are growing there.

This particular information helped researchers at the University of Tartu to discover that sleeping bacteria can help them understand the growth of other bacteria by spying on them.

"As bacteria grow, they expel material from their cell walls into the environment," the researchers said in a statement. "The cell wall is quite a rigid structure that surrounds each bacterial cell and protects it from the external environment. For a bacterium to grow bigger, the cell wall must become softer and give in to a certain degree."

Such changes result in a part of the cell wall material entering the environment, notifying sleeping bacteria about improved conditions, and that there's sufficient food to grow. The sleeping bacteria will then quickly wake up once they identify the material from the cell walls of other bacteria to consume the newly arrived nutrients.

In medicine, sleeping bacteria that don't want to wake up indicate a serious problem. The researchers said bacteria-killing treatments like antibiotics don't often work on sleeping bacterial cells, which are also known as persister cells.

This inability of antibiotics to affect dormant bacteria means bacteria can survive antibiotic treatments and grow later when the patient doesn't take them anymore. Persister cells, if not eliminated, can cause long-term chronic infections.

The findings of the study may help scientists use the mechanism to one-up bacteria, in which they are woken up with a substance similar to a cell wall. Doing so may allow antibiotics to kill the bacteria on the first try—eventually leading to a one-course treatment for bacterial infections.

Addressing the Antimicrobial Resistance Crisis

Developing a method to kill dormant bacteria will be a great development in the fight against drug-resistant diseases that international organizations have already identified as a health crisis.

The UN Interagency Coordinating Group on Antimicrobial Resistance said drug-resistant diseases may lead to 10 million deaths each year by 2050 if no action is taken. It can also cause an economic catastrophe in which antimicrobial resistance can drive down up to 24 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.

Drug-resistant diseases cause at least 700,000 people to die each year—230,000 of which are from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. In 2017, the US recorded 847 cases of drug-resistant diseases—62 of which ended in death—and cost $164,000 per multidrug-resistant case.

"More and more common diseases, including respiratory tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, and urinary tract infections, are becoming untreatable," the UN said in a statement, adding that this danger comes as medical procedures are becoming riskier and the food systems "increasingly precarious."

According to the CDC, there are currently 18 germs in the antibiotic resistance threats list—five of which are categorized as "urgent threats." It added that prevention efforts have reduced the number of deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections by 18%. However, the increasing burden of some infections may hamper this effort, especially without continued vigilance.

Amina Mohammed, UN deputy secretary-general and co-chair of the IACG, said antimicrobial resistance is among the greatest threats globally and their report showed the needed response to stop "its rise and protect a century of progress in health.

"It rightly emphasizes that there is no time to wait and I urge all stakeholders to act on its recommendations and work urgently to protect our people and planet and secure a sustainable future for all," Mohammed said.
The development of new drugs to treat resistant diseases is important, but the CDC also emphasized the need for public health prevention programs aimed to slow down the spread of resistant germs and bacteria.

Infection-prevention activities, such as vaccination and rapid response to unusual genes and germs when they first appear, are effective in slowing down the spread of drug-resistant diseases. But more still needs to be done.

A one-health approach is needed to urgently address antimicrobial resistance, said Monique Eloit, director-general of the World Organization for Animal Health, adding that this involves ambitious, long-term commitments from governments and support from international organizations.