In studying the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, the researchers found that the populations most adept at withstanding doses of antibiotics are those in which a few highly resistant isolates sacrifice their own well being to improve the group's overall chance of survival.
This bacterial altruism results when the most resistant isolates produce a small molecule called indole.
Indole acts as something of a steroid, helping the strain's more vulnerable members bulk up enough to fight off the antibiotic onslaught. But while indole may save the group, its production takes a toll on the fitness level of the individual isolates that produce it.
"We weren't expecting to find this," said lead investigator James J. Collins, Ph.D., professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute. "Typically, you would expect only the resistant strains to survive, with the susceptible ones dying off in the face of antibiotic stress. We were quite surprised to find the weak strains not only surviving, but thriving."
The findings also shed new light on the level of complexity and heterogeneity within bacterial strains. Until now, it was assumed that the overall resistance level of any given population was reflected in each of its isolates. Instead, Collins and his team found that dramatic differences can exist within a single population with some bacteria showing exceptional resistance and some almost none, not unlike cancer cells in humans.
The fact that the full complexity of bacteria strains can now be more accurately understood has significant ramifications for the medical community. "Now, when we measure the resistance in a population, we'll know that it may be tricking us," said Collins. "We'll know that even an isolate that shows no resistance can put up a stronger battle against antibiotics thanks to its buddies."
Collins is a founder of the field of synthetic biology, an area of research that combines science and engineering to construct new biological circuits that can reprogram organisms, particularly bacteria, to perform desired tasks, much like we program computers now.
His research at Boston University has also led to the development of a new class of medical devices being developed at the Wyss Institute, including vibrating insoles that help reduce falls among elderly users and normalize the gait of children with cerebral palsy.
"The Wyss Institute was founded on the premise that by breaking down institutional barriers and bringing together some of the world's top minds in science and engineering, we could accelerate transformative discovery," said Donald E. Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., Founding Director of the Wyss Institute. "I'm proud to say that the research being done by Dr. Collins is a great example of how this vision is beginning to play out."
About Boston University
Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school's research and teaching mission. The BU College of Engineering offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in the departments of Biomedical, Mechanical, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. It also has two interdisciplinary divisions focused on research and graduate education: the Division of Systems Engineering; and the Division of Materials Science & Engineering.
About the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University (http://wyss.harvard.edu) uses Nature's design principles to create breakthrough technologies that will revolutionize medicine, industry, and the environment. Working as an alliance among Harvard's schools of Medicine, Engineering, and Arts & Sciences, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Children's Hospital Boston, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Boston University, the Institute crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers to engage in high-risk, fundamental research that leads to transformative change. By applying biological principles, Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, manufacturing, robotics, energy and sustainable architecture. These technologies are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances and new startups.
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