Bacterial Resistance and Response to Antibacterial Agents

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Bacterial Resistance and Response to Antibacterial Agents

An understanding of how bacteria adapt to their environment and how certain agents interact with bacteria is essential for forensic investigators and those charged with the ultimate cleaning of crime scenes. The condition of bacteria often yields important clues as to the treatment of a body after death and can even play an important part in the determination of the cause of death .

Bactericidal is a term that refers to the treatment of a bacterium so that the organism is killed. A bactericidal treatment is always lethal and is also referred to as sterilization. Bacteriostatic refers to a treatment that restricts the ability of the bacterium to grow.

Bacteria can develop resistance to agents intend to kill them. For example, antibiotic resistance can develop swiftly. In fact, resistance to penicillin (the first antibiotic discovered) was recognized almost immediately after introduction of the drug. As of the mid 1990s, almost 80% of all strains of Staphylococcus aureus were resistant to penicillin. Meanwhile, other bacteria remain susceptible to penicillin. An example is provided by Group A Streptococcus pyogenes.

The adaptation of bacteria to an antibacterial agent such as an antibiotic can occur in two ways. The first method is known as inherent (or natural) resistance. Gram-negative bacteria, which possess two membranes that sandwich a thin, supporting structure called the peptidoglycan (Gram positive bacteria have only one membrane and a much thicker peptidoglycan) are often naturally resistant to penicillin, for example. This is because these bacteria have another outer membrane, which makes the penetration of penicillin to its target more difficult. Sometimes when bacteria acquire resistance to an antibacterial agent, the cause is a membrane alteration that has made the passage of the molecule into the cell more difficult. This is adaptation.

The second category of adaptive resistance is called acquired resistance. This resistance is almost always due to a change in the genetic make-up of the bacterial genome. Acquired resistance can occur because of mutation or as a response by the bacteria to the selective pressure imposed by the antibacterial agent. Once the genetic alteration that confers resistance is present, it can be passed on to subsequent generations. Acquired adaptation and resistance of bacteria to some clinically important antibiotics has become a great problem in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Bacteria adapt to other environmental conditions as well. These include adaptations to changes in temperature, pH, concentrations of ions such as sodium, and the nature of the surrounding support. This adaptation is under tight genetic control, involving the expression of multiple genes.

Bacteria react to a sudden change in their environment by expressing, or repressing the expression of, a variety of genes. This response changes the properties of both the interior of the organism and its surface chemistry.

Another adaptation exhibited by a great many bacteria is the formation of adherent populations on solid surfaces. This mode of growth is called a biofilm. Bacteria within a biofilm and bacteria found in other niches, such as in a wound where oxygen is limited, grow and divide at a far slower speed than the bacteria found in the test tube in the laboratory. Such bacteria are able to adapt to the slower growth rate, once again by changing their chemistry and gene expression pattern. When presented with more nutrients, the bacteria can often very quickly resume the rapid growth and division rate of their test tube counterparts.

The phenomenon of chemotaxis is a further example of adaptation, whereby a bacterium can sense the chemical composition of the environment and either moves toward an attractive compound, or shifts direction and moves away from a compound sensed as being detrimental. Chemotaxis is controlled by more than 40 genes that code for the production of components of the flagella that propel the bacterium along, for sensory receptor proteins in the membrane, and for components that are involved in signaling a bacterium to move toward or away from a compound.

Bactericidal methods include heat, filtration, radiation, and exposure to chemicals. The use of heat is a very popular method of sterilization in a microbiology laboratory. The dry heat of an open flame incinerates microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and yeast. The moist heat of a device like an autoclave can cause deformation of the protein constituents of the microbe, as well as causing the microbial membranes to liquefy. The effect of heat depends on the time of exposure in addition to form of heat that is supplied. For example, in an autoclave that supplies a temperature of 121° F (49.4° C), an exposure time of 15 minutes is sufficient to kill the socalled vegetative form of bacteria. However, a bacterial spore can survive this heat treatment. More prolonged exposure to the heat is necessary to ensure that the spore will not germinate into a living bacteria after autoclaving. The relationship between the temperature and the time of exposure can be computed mathematically.

A specialized form of bactericidal heat treatment is called pasteurization, after the inventor of the process, Louis Pasteur. Pasteurization achieves total killing of the bacterial population in fluids such as milk and fruit juices without changing the taste or visual appearance of the product.

Another bactericidal process, albeit an indirect one, is filtration. Filtration is the physical removal of bacteria from a fluid by the passage of the fluid through the filter. The filter contains holes of a certain diameter. If the diameter is less than the smallest dimension of a bacterium, the bacterium will be retained on the surface of the filter it contacts. The filtered fluid is sterile with respect to bacteria. Filtration is indirectly bactericidal since the bacteria that are retained on the filter will, for a time, be alive. However, because they are also removed from their source of nutrients, the bacteria will eventually die.

Exposure to electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet radiation is a direct means of killing bacteria. The energy of the radiation severs the strands of deoxyribonucleic acid in many locations throughout the bacterial genome. With only one exception, the damage is so severe that repair is impossible. The exception is the radiation resistant bacterial genus called Deinococcus. This genus has the ability to piece together the fragments of DNA in their original order and enzymatically stitch the pieces into a functional whole.

Exposure to chemicals can be bactericidal. For example, the gas ethylene oxide can sterilize objects. Solutions containing alcohol can also kill bacteria by dissolving the membrane(s) that surround the contents of the cell. Laboratory benches are routinely "swabbed" with an ethanol solution to kill bacteria that might be adhering to the bench top. Care must be taken to ensure that the alcohol is left in contact with the bacteria for a suitable time (e.g., minutes). Otherwise, bacteria might survive and can even develop resistance to the bactericidal agent. Other chemical means of achieving bacterial death involve the alteration of the pH, salt or sugar concentrations, and oxygen level.

Antibiotics are designed to be bactericidal. Penicillin and its derivatives are bactericidal because they act on the peptidoglycan layer of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. By preventing the assembly of the peptidoglycan, penicillin antibiotics destroy the ability of the peptidoglycan to bear the stress of osmotic pressure that acts on a bacterium. The bacterium ultimately explodes. Other antibiotics are lethal because they prevent the manufacture of DNA or protein. Unlike bactericidal methods such as the use of heat, bacteria are able to acquire resistance to antibiotics. Indeed, such resistance by clinically-important (i.e., capable of causing disease) bacteria is a major problem in hospitals.

Bacteriostatic agents prevent the growth of bacteria. Refrigeration can be bacteriostatic for those bacteria that cannot reproduce at such low temperatures. Sometimes a bacteriostatic state is advantageous as it allows for the long-term storage of bacteria. Ultra-low temperature freezing and lyophilization (the controlled removal of water from a sample) are means of preserving bacteria. Another bacteriostatic technique is the storage of bacteria in a solution that lacks nutrients, but which can keep the bacteria alive. Various buffers kept at refrigeration temperatures can keep bacteria alive for weeks.

see also Anthrax; Bacterial biology; Bacteria, classification; Bacteria, growth and reproduction; Biological weapons, genetic identification; Biosensor technologies; Bubonic plague; Decontamination methods.