Bacterial sex allows for swapping little pieces of DNA, especially parts of the code that promote survival under tough conditions. When bacteria are being attacked by antibiotics, the very few organisms among millions that have drug resistant genes get active with so-called “horizontal gene transfer“– or bacterial sex. Bacterial sex leads to resistance to antibiotics.
That is exactly how antibiotic resistance hops between bacteria, according to a new study by investigators from Oxford University. Bacteria are just trying to survive, and use the same gene transfer mechanism when trying to multiply in the midst of environmental toxins. To bacteria, antibiotics taken by humans represent just another environmental threat.
In other words, widespread and indiscriminant or casual use of antibiotics force bacterial to respond with gene swapping mechanisms to assure their long term survival. If bacteria were not under such constant pressure to survive, then the incidence of bacterial resistance would be much lessened. It is estimated that over 2 million infections with antibiotic resistant bugs occur every year in the United States.
Action item for the smart consumer: Do not be so quick to pop antibiotics for mild symptoms. Your immune system can handle all but serious infections with no help whatsoever. Find out more in the upcoming SmartMEDinfo book No-Nonsense Guide to Antibiotics by Moira Dolan, MD.
Migration and horizontal gene transfer divide microbial genomes into multiple niches, by Rene Niehus, et al, Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8924, published 23 November 2015.