Natural variations in gene expression provide a mechanism for multiple phenotypes to arise in an isogenic bacterial population. In particular, a sub-group termed persisters show high tolerance to antibiotics. Previously, their formation has been attributed to cell dormancy. Here we demonstrate that bacterial persisters, under β-lactam antibiotic treatment, show less cytoplasmic drug accumulation as a result of enhanced efflux activity. Consistently, a number of multi-drug efflux genes, particularly the central component TolC, show higher expression in persisters. Time-lapse imaging and mutagenesis studies further establish a positive correlation between tolC expression and bacterial persistence. The key role of efflux systems, among multiple biological pathways involved in persister formation, indicates that persisters implement a positive defense against antibiotics prior to a passive defense via dormancy. Finally, efflux inhibitors and antibiotics together effectively attenuate persister formation, suggesting a combination strategy to target drug tolerance.
Copyright © 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.