Compensatory Mutations, Antibiotic Resistance and the Population Genetics of Adaptive Evolution in Bacteria
Bruce R. Levin, Véronique Perrot, Nina Walker


In the absence of the selecting drugs, chromosomal mutations for resistance to antibiotics and other chemotheraputic agents commonly engender a cost in the fitness of microorganisms. Recent in vivo and in vitro experimental studies of the adaptation to these “costs of resistance” in Escherichia coli, HIV, and Salmonella typhimurium found that evolution in the absence of these drugs commonly results in the ascent of mutations that ameliorate these costs, rather than higher-fitness, drug-sensitive revertants. To ascertain the conditions under which this compensatory evolution, rather than reversion, will occur, we did computer simulations, in vitro experiments, and DNA sequencing studies with low-fitness rpsL (streptomycin-resistant) mutants of E. coli with and without mutations that compensate for the fitness costs of these ribosomal protein mutations. The results of our investigation support the hypothesis that in these experiments, the ascent of intermediate-fitness compensatory mutants, rather than high-fitness revertants, can be attributed to higher rates of compensatory mutations relative to that of reversion and to the numerical bottlenecks associated with serial passage. We argue that these bottlenecks are intrinsic to the population dynamics of parasitic and commensal microbes and discuss the implications of these results to the problem of drug resistance and adaptive evolution in parasitic and commmensal microorganisms in general.

  • Received June 21, 1999.
  • Accepted November 29, 1999.
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