Possible implications of biocide accumulation in the environment on the prevalence of bacterial antibiotic resistance

J Ind Microbiol Biotechnol. 2002 Dec;29(6):326-30. doi: 10.1038/sj.jim.7000324.


The lethality of biocides depends upon their interaction with a number of distinct biochemical targets. This often reflects reactive chemistry for any given agent, such as thiol oxidation. Susceptibility may vary markedly between different target organisms, and changes within the more sensitive targets can alter the inhibitory effect. The multiplicity of potential targets, however, usually dictates against the development of overt resistance to concentrations used for hygienic applications. Similarly, although changes in cellular permeability toward such agents, mediated either by envelope modification or the induction of efflux-pumps may reduce susceptibility, they rarely influence the outcome of treatments at use-concentration. It has recently been proposed that chronic exposure of the environment to biocides used in a variety of commercial products might expose some microbial communities to subeffective concentrations causing emergence of resistant clones. Such resistance might relate to mutational changes in the most susceptible target or to regulatory mutants that cause the constitutive expression of certain efflux pumps. Although selection of organisms with such modifications is unlikely to influence the effectiveness of the biocides, changes in their susceptibility to third-party antibiotics can be postulated. This is particularly the case where a cellular target is shared between a biocide and an antibiotic, or where induction of efflux is sufficient to confer antibiotic resistance in the clinic. Although such linkage has been demonstrated in the laboratory in pure culture, it has not been documented in environments commonly exposed to biocides. In nature, the effects of chronic stressing with biocides are complicated by competition between microbial community members that may result in clonal expansion of naturally insusceptible clones.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial* / genetics
  • Environmental Microbiology*
  • Selection, Genetic


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents