Human use of antibiotics has driven the selective enrichment of pathogenic bacteria resistant to clinically used drugs. Traditionally, the selection of resistance has been considered to occur mainly at high, therapeutic levels of antibiotics, but we are now beginning to understand better the importance of selection of resistance at low levels of antibiotics. The concentration of an antibiotic varies in different body compartments during treatment, and low concentrations of antibiotics are found in sewage water, soils, and many water environments due to natural production and contamination from human activities. Selection of resistance at non-lethal antibiotic concentrations (below the wild-type minimum inhibitory concentration) occurs due to differences in growth rate at the particular antibiotic concentration between cells with different tolerance levels to the antibiotic. The minimum selective concentration for a particular antibiotic is reached when its reducing effect on growth of the susceptible strain balances the reducing effect (fitness cost) of the resistance determinant in the resistant strain. Recent studies have shown that resistant bacteria can be selected at concentrations several hundred-fold below the lethal concentrations for susceptible cells. Resistant mutants selected at low antibiotic concentrations are generally more fit than those selected at high concentrations but can still be highly resistant. The characteristics of selection at low antibiotic concentrations, the potential clinical problems of this mode of selection, and potential solutions will be discussed.
Keywords: Antibiotic resistance; environmental contamination; fitness cost; selection; sub-MIC.