The Fitness of Beta-Lactamase Mutants Depends Nonlinearly on Resistance Level at Sublethal Antibiotic Concentrations

Andrew D. Farr* (Corresponding author), Diego Pesce, Suman G. Das, Mark P. Zwart, J. Arjan G. M. de Visser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


Adaptive evolutionary processes are constrained by the availability of mutations which cause a fitness benefit and together make up the fitness landscape, which maps genotype space onto fitness under specified conditions. Experimentally derived fitness landscapes have demonstrated a predictability to evolution by identifying limited “mutational routes” that evolution by natural selection may take between low and high-fitness genotypes. However, such studies often utilize indirect measures to determine fitness. We estimated the competitive fitness of mutants relative to all single-mutation neighbors to describe the fitness landscape of three mutations in a β-lactamase enzyme. Fitness assays were performed at sublethal concentrations of the antibiotic cefotaxime in a structured and unstructured environment. In the unstructured environment, the antibiotic selected for higher-resistance types—but with an equivalent fitness for a subset of mutants, despite substantial variation in resistance—resulting in a stratified fitness landscape. In contrast, in a structured environment with a low antibiotic concentration, antibiotic-susceptible genotypes had a relative fitness advantage, which was associated with antibiotic-induced filamentation. These results cast doubt that highly resistant genotypes have a unique selective advantage in environments with subinhibitory concentrations of antibiotics and demonstrate that direct fitness measures are required for meaningful predictions of the accessibility of evolutionary routes.

The evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacterial populations underpins the ongoing antibiotic resistance crisis. We aim to understand how antibiotic-degrading enzymes can evolve to cause increased resistance, how this process is constrained, and whether it can be predictable. To this end, competition experiments were performed with a combinatorially complete set of mutants of a β-lactamase gene subject to subinhibitory concentrations of the antibiotic cefotaxime. While some mutations confer on their hosts high resistance to cefotaxime, in competition these mutations do not always confer a selective advantage. Specifically, high-resistance mutants had equivalent fitnesses despite different resistance levels and even had selective disadvantages under conditions involving spatial structure. Together, our findings suggest that the relationship between resistance level and fitness at subinhibitory concentrations is complex; predicting the evolution of antibiotic resistance requires knowledge of the conditions that select for resistant genotypes and the selective advantage evolved types have over their predecessors.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Apr 2023


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