Transient Silencing of Antibiotic Resistance by Mutation Represents a Significant Potential Source of Unanticipated Therapeutic Failure.
Sporadic literature reports describe isolates of pathogenic bacteria that harbor an antibiotic resistance determinant but remain susceptible to the corresponding antibiotic as a consequence of a genetic defect. Such strains represent a source from which antibiotic resistance may reemerge to cause treatment failure in patients. Here, we report a systematic investigation into the prevalence and nature of this phenomenon, which we term silencing of antibiotic resistance by mutation (SARM). Instances of SARM were detected among 1,470 Staphylococcus aureus isolates through side-by-side comparison of antibiotic resistance genotype (as determined by whole-genome sequencing) versus phenotype (as assessed through susceptibility testing). Of the isolates analyzed, 152 (10.3%) harbored a silenced resistance gene, including 46 (3.1%) that exhibited SARM to currently deployed antistaphylococcal drugs. SARM resulted from diverse mutational events but most commonly through frameshift mutation of resistance determinants as a result of point deletion in poly(A) tracts. The majority (∼90%) of SARM strains reverted to antibiotic resistance at frequencies of ≥10-9; thus, while appearing antibiotic sensitive in the clinical microbiology laboratory, most S. aureus isolates exhibiting SARM will revert to antibiotic resistance at frequencies achievable in patients. In view of its prevalence in a major pathogen, SARM represents a significant potential threat to the therapeutic efficacy of antibiotics.IMPORTANCE Antibiotic resistance hinders the treatment of bacterial infection. To guide effective therapy, clinical microbiology laboratories routinely perform susceptibility testing to determine the antibiotic sensitivity of an infecting pathogen. This approach relies on the assumption that it can reliably distinguish bacteria capable of expressing antibiotic resistance in patients, an idea challenged by the present study. We report that the important human pathogen Staphylococcus aureus frequently carries antibiotic resistance genes that have become inactivated ("silenced") by mutation, leading strains to appear antibiotic sensitive. However, resistance can rapidly reemerge in most such cases, at frequencies readily achievable in infected patients. Silent antibiotic resistance is therefore prevalent, transient, and evades routine detection, rendering it a significant potential threat to antibacterial chemotherapy.