At the high concentrations used in medicine, antibiotics exert strong selection on bacterial populations for the evolution of resistance. However, these lethal concentrations may not be representative of the concentrations bacteria face in soil, a recognition that has led to questions of the role of antibiotics in soil environments as well as the dynamics of resistance evolution during sublethal challenge. Here we examine the evolution of resistance to sub-minimal inhibitory concentrations (sub-MIC) of streptomycin in the filamentous soil bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor. First, we show that spontaneous resistance to streptomycin causes an average fitness deficit of ~21% in the absence of drugs; however, these costs are eliminated at concentrations as low as 1/10 the MIC of susceptible strains. Using experimental evolution, we next show that resistance to >MIC levels of streptomycin readily evolves when bacteria are exposed to sub-MIC doses for 500 generations. Furthermore, the resistant clones that evolved at sub-MIC streptomycin concentrations carry no fitness cost. Whole-genome analyses reveal that evolved resistant clones fixed some of the same mutations as those isolated at high drug concentrations; however, all evolved clones carry additional mutations and some fixed mutations that either compensate for costly resistance or have no associated fitness costs. Our results broaden the conditions under which resistance can evolve in nature and suggest that rather than low-concentration antibiotics acting as signals, resistance evolves in response to antibiotics used as weapons.
Westhoff, S., van Leeuwe, T. M., Qachach, O., Zhang, Z., van Wezel, G. P., & Rozen, D. E. (2017). The evolution of no-cost resistance at sub-MIC concentrations of streptomycin in Streptomyces coelicolor. ISME Journal, 11, 1168-1178. https://doi.org/10.1038/ismej.2016.194