In Microbiology, News & Views

Multi-drug resistant bacteria- or superbugs, as they are more commonly known- arrived on the medical scene because of the widespread use of antibiotics. Bacteria were overexposed to these agents and evolved a defence mechanism which we now refer to as ‘antibiotic resistance’.

Antibiotics themselves have only been available for a hundred years, meaning we could conclude that superbugs are somewhat younger.

Apparently not.

Recent work published in the prestigious journal Cell presents evidence describing the molecular clock of the Enterococcus bacterium; that is, its history of genetic evolution. Enterococci normally live in the guts of many animals and humans and are able to establish infection when the conditions are right. In addition, Enterococci bacteria are commonly found in hospital environments, are a cause of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) and demonstrate antibiotic resistance. By travelling back in time through analysis of their molecular clock, the research demonstrated that all Enterococci species developed mechanisms to become particularly difficult to kill a long time ago. For example, Enterococci evolved genes to make them resistant to starvation, disinfectants, dryness and, unfortunately, a lot of antibiotics.

Bacteria have been regarded as life’s most successful type of organism because of their ability to live, survive and thrive in virtually every habitat where other life forms cannot be found. They emerged on Earth around 4 billion years ago and have continuously lived on land and in the sea. Three and a half billion years’ later, animals appeared and would have been quickly colonised by bacteria. As the first animals moved from water to the land, their bacterial populations went with them. The molecular clock of the Enterococci shows that new types of animals resulted in new strains of Enterococci, supporting the idea that bacteria have been evolving to exploit new environments because of resistance to harsh conditions for hundreds of millions of years.

Antibiotic-resistance may well also have originated all this time ago.

Microbes that are based in marine animals maintain their place in the food chain but on land, intestinal microbes that are expelled as part of the animals’ waste tend to dry out and eventually die. However, Enterococci don’t suffer that fate as they have historically evolved an ability to withstand adverse environmental stresses. It is therefore hardly surprising to find bacteria like Enterococci in places such as disinfectant-laden hospitals.

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