Bacterial evolution and the cost of antibiotic resistance

Int Microbiol. 1998 Dec;1(4):265-70.


Bacteria clearly benefit from the possession of an antibiotic resistance gene when the corresponding antibiotic is present. But do resistant bacteria suffer a cost of resistance (i.e., a reduction in fitness) when the antibiotic is absent? If so, then one strategy to control the spread of resistance would be to suspend the use of a particular antibiotic until resistant genotypes declined to low frequency. Numerous studies have indeed shown that resistant genotypes are less fit than their sensitive counterparts in the absence of antibiotic, indicating a cost of resistance. But there is an important caveat: these studies have put resistance genes into naive bacteria, which have no evolutionary history of association with the resistance genes. An important question, therefore, is whether bacteria can overcome the cost of resistance by evolving adaptations that counteract the harmful side-effects of resistance genes. In fact, several experiments (in vitro and in vivo) show that the cost of antibiotic resistance can be substantially diminished, even eliminated, by evolutionary changes in bacteria over rather short periods of time. As a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult to eliminate resistant genotypes simply by suspending the use of antibiotics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria* / genetics
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Chromosomes, Bacterial
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial / genetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutagenesis
  • Plasmids