Fluoroquinolones (FQ) are the recommended antimicrobial treatment for typhoid, a severe systemic infection caused by the bacterium Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi. FQ-resistance mutations in S. Typhi have become common, hindering treatment and control efforts. Using in vitro competition experiments, we assayed the fitness of eleven isogenic S. Typhi strains with resistance mutations in the FQ target genes, gyrA and parC. In the absence of antimicrobial pressure, 6 out of 11 mutants carried a selective advantage over the antimicrobial-sensitive parent strain, indicating that FQ resistance in S. Typhi is not typically associated with fitness costs. Double-mutants exhibited higher than expected fitness as a result of synergistic epistasis, signifying that epistasis may be a critical factor in the evolution and molecular epidemiology of S. Typhi. Our findings have important implications for the management of drug-resistant S. Typhi, suggesting that FQ-resistant strains would be naturally maintained even if fluoroquinolone use were reduced.
The fluoroquinolones are a group of antimicrobials that are used to treat a variety of life-threatening bacterial infections, including typhoid fever. Before the introduction of antimicrobials, the mortality rate from typhoid fever was 10–20%. Prompt treatment with fluoroquinolones has reduced this to less than 1%, and has also decreased the severity of symptoms suffered by people with the disease.
Now, however, the usefulness of many antimicrobials, including the fluoroquinolones, is threatened by the evolution of antimicrobial resistance within the bacterial populations being treated. Drug resistance in bacteria typically arises through specific mutations, or following the acquisition of antimicrobial resistance genes from other bacteria. It is thought that the frequent use of antimicrobials in human and animal health puts selective pressure on bacterial populations, allowing bacterial strains with mutations or genes that confer antimicrobial resistance to survive, while bacterial strains that are sensitive to the antimicrobials die out.
At first it was thought that specific mutations conferring antimicrobial resistance came at a fitness cost, which would mean that such mutations would be rare in the absence of antimicrobials. Now, based on research into typhoid fever, Baker et al. describe a system in which the majority of evolutionary routes to drug resistance are marked by significant fitness benefits, even in the absence of antimicrobial exposure.
Typhoid is caused by a bacterial pathogen known as Salmonella Typhi, and mutations in two genes—gyrA and parC—result in resistance to fluoroquinolones. Baker et al. show that mutations in these genes confer a measurable fitness advantage over strains without these mutations, even in the absence of exposure to fluoroquinolones. Moreover, strains with two mutations in one of these genes exhibited a higher than predicted fitness, suggesting that there is a synergistic interaction between the two mutations. This work challenges the dogma that antimicrobial resistant organisms have a fitness disadvantage in the absence of antimicrobials, and suggests that increasing resistance to the fluoroquinolones is not solely driven by excessive use of this important group of drugs.