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Mechanisms and Consequences of Bacterial Resistance to Natural Antibiotics


Perry, Elena Kim (2021) Mechanisms and Consequences of Bacterial Resistance to Natural Antibiotics. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/tv8n-kr43.


Many bacteria secrete natural antibiotics—toxic small molecules that can kill or inhibit the growth of other microorganisms. Several of these compounds have been commercialized as antimicrobial drugs, and the mechanisms and public health consequences of bacterial resistance to clinically-used antibiotics are well understood. By contrast, the role of bacterially-produced antibiotics in natural environments, where they have existed for millions of years, remains an open question. Besides potentially serving as tools of warfare between competing microbes, natural antibiotics have been proposed to serve less antagonistic functions ranging from the acquisition of nutrients to the transmission of signals between cells. Indeed, despite evidence that natural antibiotics can suppress sensitive microbes in environments such as the soil surrounding plant roots, the ecological significance of the toxicity of these molecules has sometimes been questioned. At the same time, for most natural antibiotics, the mechanisms and prevalence of resistance are either poorly characterized or entirely unknown.

This thesis addresses the molecular mechanisms and consequences of bacterial resistance to a particular class of redox-active natural antibiotics called phenazines. Phenazines are produced by a major opportunistic human pathogen, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, during infections, as well as by several bacterial species that associate with the roots of crops such as wheat, where they serve to protect their plant hosts against fungal pathogens. Resistance to this family of natural antibiotics is therefore potentially relevant to multiple sectors of human society. I begin by investigating the intrinsic phenazine resistance of a common soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, that does not itself produce phenazines. Using a functional genetics approach, I find that the composition of the respiratory electron transport chain plays a critical role in mitigating phenazine toxicity, one that cannot be compensated by increased expression of efflux pumps that transport phenazines out of the cell or oxidative stress responses that neutralize the toxic byproducts of phenazine redox-cycling. Subsequently, we turn to P. aeruginosa, the phenazine-producing opportunistic pathogen, and demonstrate that the defenses it activates against its own toxic phenazine, pyocyanin, collaterally accelerate the acquisition of resistance to certain clinical antibiotics. Other bacteria known to form multispecies infections with P. aeruginosa can also benefit from exposure to pyocyanin in the presence of these clinical antibiotics; we show that in at least one strain isolated from a patient, the effect of pyocyanin on the frequency of spontaneous antibiotic-resistant mutants rivals that of disruptions in DNA repair machinery. Importantly, a growing body of reports suggests that, besides pyocyanin, other metabolites produced by bacterial pathogens can also affect the efficacy of clinical antibiotics. We review the evidence for which types of bacterial metabolites alter susceptibility to antimicrobial drugs, as well as the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. Finally, I examine the prevalence of bacterial resistance to an agriculturally-relevant phenazine in a wheat field where the use of native phenazine producers to control crop diseases has been studied for decades. I discover that while Gram-positive bacteria are generally more susceptible to this phenazine compared to Gram-negative bacteria, the sharpness of this distinction is pH-dependent; moreover, I uncover surprising heterogeneity in phenazine resistance within certain taxonomic groups. Taken together, these findings illuminate recurring themes in mechanisms of phenazine resistance and point to an underappreciated role for natural antibiotics in the resilience of opportunistic pathogens to clinical antibiotics. This thesis also lays the groundwork for developing a predictive model of phenazine resistance across diverse bacteria, with potential implications for optimizing the use of clinical antibiotics and improving agricultural sustainability.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Antibiotic; antibiotic resistance; antibiotic tolerance; bacteria; opportunistic pathogen; phenazine; oxidative stress; reactive oxygen species; secondary metabolite
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Biology and Biological Engineering
Major Option:Biology
Awards:Dr. Nagendranath Reddy Biological Sciences Thesis Prize, 2021.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Newman, Dianne K.
Thesis Committee:
  • Bronner, Marianne E. (chair)
  • Ismagilov, Rustem F.
  • Parker, Joseph
  • Leadbetter, Jared R.
  • Newman, Dianne K.
Defense Date:31 March 2021
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:04152021-173245433
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription tables associated with Chapter 3 and Chapter 5. adapted for Chapter 2. adapted for Chapter 3.
Perry, Elena Kim0000-0002-7151-1479
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14121
Deposited By: Elena Perry
Deposited On:22 Apr 2021 20:53
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:46

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