Exploration into the origins and mobilization of di-hydrofolate reductase genes and the emergence of clinical resistance to trimethoprim

Microb Genom. 2020 Nov;6(11):mgen000440. doi: 10.1099/mgen.0.000440.


Trimethoprim is a synthetic antibacterial agent that targets folate biosynthesis by competitively binding to the di-hydrofolate reductase enzyme (DHFR). Trimethoprim is often administered synergistically with sulfonamide, another chemotherapeutic agent targeting the di-hydropteroate synthase (DHPS) enzyme in the same pathway. Clinical resistance to both drugs is widespread and mediated by enzyme variants capable of performing their biological function without binding to these drugs. These mutant enzymes were assumed to have arisen after the discovery of these synthetic drugs, but recent work has shown that genes conferring resistance to sulfonamide were present in the bacterial pangenome millions of years ago. Here, we apply phylogenetics and comparative genomics methods to study the largest family of mobile trimethoprim-resistance genes (dfrA). We show that most of the dfrA genes identified to date map to two large clades that likely arose from independent mobilization events. In contrast to sulfonamide resistance (sul) genes, we find evidence of recurrent mobilization in dfrA genes. Phylogenetic evidence allows us to identify novel dfrA genes in the emerging pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii, and we confirm their resistance phenotype in vitro. We also identify a cluster of dfrA homologues in cryptic plasmid and phage genomes, but we show that these enzymes do not confer resistance to trimethoprim. Our methods also allow us to pinpoint the chromosomal origin of previously reported dfrA genes, and we show that many of these ancient chromosomal genes also confer resistance to trimethoprim. Our work reveals that trimethoprim resistance predated the clinical use of this chemotherapeutic agent, but that novel mutations have likely also arisen and become mobilized following its widespread use within and outside the clinic. Hence, this work confirms that resistance to novel drugs may already be present in the bacterial pangenome, and stresses the importance of rapid mobilization as a fundamental element in the emergence and global spread of resistance determinants.

Keywords: antibiotics; chemotherapeutic agent; evolution; phylogenetics; resistance; sulfonamides; trimethoprim.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acinetobacter baumannii / drug effects
  • Acinetobacter baumannii / genetics*
  • Acinetobacter baumannii / isolation & purification
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Folic Acid / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Sulfonamides / pharmacology
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase / genetics*
  • Trimethoprim / pharmacology*
  • Trimethoprim Resistance / genetics*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Sulfonamides
  • Folic Acid
  • Trimethoprim
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase