Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Microbe Is Just One Gene from Multi-drug Resistance

A University of Queensland study has tracked a potentially devastating E. coli strain that is only one gene away from being resistant to almost all anti­biotics.

Dr Nouri Ben Zakour of UQ’s Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre said the emergence and rapid spread of E. coli ST131 meant that urinary tract and bloodstream infections could become more common and difficult to treat. “More than 150 million cases of urinary tract infection are reported globally every year, so an E. coli resistant to all currently effective antibiotic treatments could be devastating to the community,” she said.

Ben Zakour said that E. coli ST131 was not problematic 5 years ago. “This study lets us understand in detail the evolution of a bacterial pathogen from obscurity to notoriety,” she said. “It appears the E. coli ST131 arose from a single ancestor more than a decade ago.”

The research team used the latest DNA-sequencing techniques to identify the genetic differences between E. coli ST131 strains taken from six regions around the world. “We needed to develop new software just to analyse all of the data,” Zakour said.

Senior researcher Dr Scott Beatson said it was vitally important to understand E. coli ST131 as there were few new anti-microbial drugs in the developmental pipeline. “The gravity of this problem is such that E. coli ST131 are only one gene away from being resistant to all antibiotics that can be used to effectively treat urinary tract infections,” he said.

Dr Nicola Petty, who co-authored the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, said the research would enable the development of tests to rapidly detect and help combat the spread of this superbug.