How bacteria share their superbug traits

Some bacteria form 'hubs' to share genetic traits - possibly contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Credit: eraxion / 123RF Stock Photo

Bacteria growing in communities of more than one species can develop traits such as antibiotic resistance, according to research carried out by biologists at York.

The study takes us a step closer to understanding the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, one of the world’s most pressing global health challenges.

By studying bacteria in soil samples, the York researchers found that genes for traits such as antibiotic resistance can be spread by particular types of molecule known as infectious plasmids.

Bacteria growing in mixed populations of more than one species allowed the plasmids to broadcast genetic information across the bacterial ‘community’ – and this could include traits that enable bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics.

Gene exchange hubs

“In these conditions, some bacteria act as gene exchange ‘hubs’ which spread plasmids to neighbouring bacteria,” explains Dr James Hall who carried out the research with Professor Michael Brockhurst in our Department of Biology.

“It’s a bit like sharing posts on social media. Some people share lots, others only rarely and different people have different interests. This diversity means that overall we encounter a much broader range of ideas than we would if we were all the same.

“For bacteria, this means that in diverse communities they are probably exposed to more plasmids allowing more options for them to evolve in different ways. This could include bacteria developing resistance to antibiotic treatment.”

Multi-species bacterial communities are common in many habitats, including soil, water treatment plants — and the human body.

Next step

The next step for the researchers at York is to understand why some bacteria make better hubs than others, and what the consequences are for the spread of resistance genes.

A growing number of infections, such as pneumonia, are becoming harder to treat as antibiotics become less effective.

“Improving our understanding of the ecological and environmental factors that enable plasmids to survive and spread is vitally important to controlling the spread of resistance genes and the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Dr Hall.

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bacteria...in diverse communities are exposed to more plasmids allowing more options for them to evolve in different ways”
Dr James Hall

This research project is funded by the European Research Council

Featured researcher
Dr James Hall

Dr James Hall

Research interests in evolutionary and molecular biology

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Featured researcher
Professor Michael Brockhurst

Professor Michael Brockhurst

Award-winning research into the evolutionary biology of microbes

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Discover the details

Source–sink plasmid transfer dynamics maintain gene mobility in soil bacterial communities was published in PNAS

Find out how the TARGeTED research project at York is tackling the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR)