Antibiotics are used to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections and have saved millions of lives since they were first introduced in the 1940s and 1950s. However, due to both overuse and misuse, many are no longer effective and The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the emergence of new antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be a serious threat to global public health.
According to their mechanism of action, antibiotics can be divided into three main groups:
For example, penicillin and its related compounds prevent susceptible bacteria from creating a cell wall. They do this by binding to and inactivating an enzyme (transpeptidase) necessary for the cross-linking of peptidoglycan in the wall, thus stopping its formation. Resistance to this antibiotic is due to the bacteria producing its own enzyme called beta-lactamase which breaks the ring structure of the penicillin and prevents its ability to bind to the bacterial transpeptidase.
As with all proteins, beta-lactamase is encoded by a section of DNA – but how does that DNA and the ability to produce a new protein transfer from one population of bacteria that have resistance to another population that don’t?
Apart from direct transfer from parent to daughter cell through cellular reproduction, horizontal transmission of DNA between different genomes also occurs. Horizontal gene transfer is made possible by the existence of mobile genetic elements, such as plasmids (extrachromosomal genetic material), transposons (“jumping genes”) and bacteria-infecting viruses (bacteriophages). These elements are transferred between organisms through different mechanisms, which in prokaryotes include transformation, conjugation, and transduction.
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