The high prevalence of antibiotic heteroresistance in pathogenic bacteria is mainly caused by gene amplification

Nat Microbiol. 2019 Mar;4(3):504-514. doi: 10.1038/s41564-018-0342-0. Epub 2019 Feb 11.


When choosing antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, it is assumed that the susceptibility of the target bacteria to an antibiotic is reflected by laboratory estimates of the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) needed to prevent bacterial growth. A caveat of using MIC data for this purpose is heteroresistance, the presence of a resistant subpopulation in a main population of susceptible cells. We investigated the prevalence and mechanisms of heteroresistance in 41 clinical isolates of the pathogens Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Acinetobacter baumannii against 28 different antibiotics. For the 766 bacteria-antibiotic combinations tested, as much as 27.4% of the total was heteroresistant. Genetic analysis demonstrated that a majority of heteroresistance cases were unstable, with an increased resistance of the subpopulations resulting from spontaneous tandem amplifications, typically including known resistance genes. Using mathematical modelling, we show how heteroresistance in the parameter range estimated in this study can result in the failure of antibiotic treatment of infections with bacteria that are classified as antibiotic susceptible. The high prevalence of heteroresistance with the potential for treatment failure highlights the limitations of MIC as the sole criterion for susceptibility determinations. These results call for the development of facile and rapid protocols to identify heteroresistance in pathogens.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acinetobacter / drug effects
  • Acinetobacter / genetics
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Colistin / pharmacology
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Gene Amplification*
  • Humans
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Prevalence


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Colistin