Antibiotic resistance is an enormous problem that affects approximately 2 million people in the US each year. Most of our antibiotics attack bacteria by interfering with their ability to make DNA and therefore preventing their growth. Bacteria that develop resistance to these antibiotics have mutated and developed a way to get around the effects of the antibiotic and are therefore able to continue growing. Even without these clever shortcuts around the action of antibiotics, some bacteria are able to avoid the antibiotics without relying on such mutations. A team of researchers from Germany have discovered how bacteria avoid antibiotics without mutations.
Using E. coli as a model, the team identified a hibernation mechanism that can be turned on by bacteria to slip past our best antibiotics. Since most of our drugs target bacteria growth and DNA replication, the hibernation state halts all growth and DNA synthesis temporarily to survive the course of antibiotics and then continuing infecting the host after the treatment has stopped. The team was able to narrow the control of this hibernation state to a protein called HipA which acts like a danger sensor and triggers a slow down in cell growth and eventually hibernation.
So what can we do with this new information? If we understand how cells turn on the hibernation state to avoid antibiotics, then we can prevent them from doing so in the first place. This discovery opens up new avenues for treatment and may even help make some antibiotics more effective. It can also help treat persistent bacterial infections where, even with the best course of antibiotics, the bacteria linger.