Antibiotic Breakdown by Susceptible Bacteria Enhances the Establishment of β-Lactam Resistant Mutants

Manja Saebelfeld*, Suman G. Das*, Jorn Brink, Arno Brink, Joachim Krug, Arjan de Visser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


For a better understanding of the evolution of antibiotic resistance, it is imperative to study the factors that determine the initial establishment of mutant resistance alleles. In addition to the antibiotic concentration, the establishment of resistance alleles may be affected by interactions with the surrounding susceptible cells from which they derive, for instance via the release of nutrients or removal of the antibiotic. Here, we investigate the effects of social interactions with surrounding susceptible cells on the establishment of Escherichia coli mutants with increasing β-lactamase activity (i.e., the capacity to hydrolyze β-lactam antibiotics) from single cells under the exposure of the antibiotic cefotaxime (CTX) on agar plates. We find that relatively susceptible cells, expressing a β-lactamase with very low antibiotic-hydrolyzing activity, increase the probability of mutant cells to survive and outgrow into colonies due to the active breakdown of the antibiotic. However, the rate of breakdown by the susceptible strain is much higher than expected based on its low enzymatic activity. A detailed theoretical model suggests that this observation may be explained by cell filamentation causing delayed lysis. While susceptible cells may hamper the spread of higher-resistant β-lactamase mutants at relatively high frequencies, our findings show that they promote their initial establishment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number698970
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2021


  • Escherichia coli
  • mutant establishment
  • resistance evolution
  • social interactions
  • β-lactamase


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