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Antibiotic Resistance


The generic purpose of an antibiotic is to prevent the growth and/or survival of invading organisms whilst causing minimal damage and toxicity to the host. The typical mechanism of antibiotic action involves targeting specific enzymes or substrates of the invading bacterial species. Antibiotics may be either bacteriocidal (i.e. kill bacteria, e.g. β-lactam antibiotics) or bacteriostatic (i.e. slow bacteria growth and reproduction e.g. tetracyclines). However, the majority of bacteria are actually killed by the host immune system, the administration of antibiotics is typically only to aid the immune system and thus speed up recovery.

Some antibiotics may be synergistic, that is, when used with other antibiotics the overall therapeutic effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, this allows for reduced doses to be administered.

Antibiotics can have either target a narrow spectrum of bacteria (such as the penicillins and macrolides), or a broad spectrum of bacteria (such as the aminoglycosides, cephalosporins, quinolones and some synthetic penicillins).

The use of antibiotics in food animals is subject to EU legislation which governs maximum residue limits (MRLs), the maximum concentration of antibiotic allowed to be administered to the animal for it still to be fit for human consumption. Antibiotics must be prevented from entering the food chain in this manner, so MRLs have been categorised into 4 annexes:

  • Annex 1 – MRL has been fixed
  • Annex 2 – MRL not required
  • Annex 3 – Provisional MRL
  • Annex 4 – No MRL can be set

The use of annex 4 antibiotics (e.g. chloramphenicol) is prohibited in animals destined for human consumption, with use of annex 1 or 2 antibiotics being preferred.

Choice of Antibiotics

There are many factors to consider when selecting an appropriate antibiotic for use. The first question to ask should be, ‘Is the infection bacterial?’ Antibiotics should only be administered for bacterial infections as they are of no use against viral infections. It is also important to remember that antibiotics only treat the infection and do not act as anti-inflammatories or anti-pyretics.

The site of infection is another consideration, as whilst some antibiotics will be of great use for skin infections, they may not be as useful for respiratory tract infections. The species of bacteria must also be considered, this will firstly require the culture and identification of the invasive organism to determine the species. However, within a species there may be variations of antibiotic susceptibility so it is important to generate a resistance profile i.e. determine which antibiotics the bacteria is resistant to and thus avoid prescribing these antibiotics. It must then be decided whether to use a broad or wide spectrum of antibiotic and wether this antibiotic should be bacteriocidal or bacteriostatic.

Bacteriostatic antibiotics will require a duration of therapy which gives the host cellular and humoral immune responses enough time to eradicate the bacteria. Alternatively bacteriocidal antibiotics are used when the host immune system is considered to be ineffective against the invasive organism.

Other factors to consider include:

  • The distribution of the drug throughout the body
  • The cost for a course of the antibiotic
  • The toxicity posed to the host
  • Any underlying disease which may be affected by the use of the antibiotic
  • Whether the host is pregnant or juvenile
  • The practically of the drug i.e. the route of administration, dosage, frequency of dose and the duration of action etc.

The Cascade

One final consideration to be made when administering antibiotics for animals is ‘The Cascade,’ which is a regulation governing restrictions on the administering of veterinary medical products.

In animals, an antibiotic must be licensed for use with a particular species and disease. However if no such antibiotic exists, to avoid unacceptable suffering, the veterinary surgeon may prescribe another antibiotic in order of the cascade:

  1. A veterinary medicine licensed for use in another species or in the same species but for a different use. This is known as ‘off-label’ use.
  2. A medicine licensed for use in humans.
  3. An unlicensed medicine, created and prescribed as a ‘one-off’ by the veterinary surgeon.

Determination of Resistance

Two important factors to consider when attempting to determine whether a bacteria is resistant to a particular antibiotic are:

  • The Minimal Inhibitory Concentration (MIC) – The minimum concentration of a drug which prevents the growth of bacteria
  • The Minimum Bacteriocidal Concentration (MBC) – The concentration of a drug which causes a 99% reduction in a bacterial innoculum over a given period of time.

Also of importance are:

  • Pharmacodynamics – The effect of a drug on a pathogen i.e. the MIC and MBC
  • Pharmacokinetics – The effect of the body on a drug i.e. the absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of the drug

Breakpoints are predetermined concentrations of an antibiotic, which determine whether a bacteria is deemed susceptible or resistant to that antibiotic. If this concentration of antibiotic causes a reduction in bacterial numbers or prevents further growth then that strain of bacteria is defined as susceptible to the antibiotic in question. If the bacteria does not at least show signs of prevented growth, the bacteria is defined as resistant to the antibiotic.

Disc Diffusion

One method of determining antibody resistance is disc diffusion. A species of bacteria is isolated and cultured on growth medium. After an incubation period that allows for visible colonies to be observed on the growth medium, diffusion discs are placed around the growth plate. These discs are impregnated with different antibiotics. After a short incubation period, susceptible bacteria around the discs will have been killed, indicated by a clearing in the colonies. The diameter of the clearing can be used to determine how susceptible the species is to an antibiotic. If there is no clearing (or a very small clearing) this indicates resistance to the antibiotic which impregnated the disc.

Mechanisms of Antibiotic Resistance


Intrinsic Resistance

Intrinsic resistance is that which is not acquired, inherent resistance, such as a natural low permeability to antibiotics due to a bacterial envelope. This type of resistance is characteristic to almost all representatives of a species. An example of this type of resistance is observed in Pseudomonas species. Their resistance to antibiotics is owed to the low permeability of their bacterial envelope to certain antibiotics and the presence of a multi-drug efflux pump.

This efflux pump occurs naturally in bacteria and usually removes waste products from the cell, such as bile, fatty acids and organic solvents. However a mutation in some species also permits the efflux of antibiotics from the cell thus preventing them from exerting their action upon the bacteria. This trait is also acquirable however, such as the efflux pump gene responsible for tetracycline resistance.

Acquired resistance

Antibiotic resistance genes found on plasmids, can be transferred between individual bacteria, hence non-resistant bacteria can easily acquire resistance. Acquired resistance can also occur due to mutations. Beneficial mutations can then be transmitted around the bacterial population. The biggest resistance problems occur in Gram-negative organisms due to the large numbers of plasmids found within the population, another resistance problem occurs in Staphylococcus species i.e. MRSA and MRSP.

Targets of Antibiotics

Antibiotics can work in a number of ways:

  • Inhibit cell wall synthesis e.g. penicillins, cephalosporins, carbapenems, glycopeptides
  • Inhibit DNA synthesis e.g. fluoroquinolones
  • Inhibit RNA synthesis e.g. rifampicin
  • Inhibit folic acid synthesis e.g. sulfonamides, trimethoprim
  • Inhibit protein synthesis e.g. macrolides, chloramphenicol, tetracycline, aminoglycosides

However, bacteria have a number of mechanisms to resist the effects of antibiotics:

  • Decrease permeability to the antibiotic
  • Inactive the antibody by chemically altering it with enzymes
  • Efflux of the antibody via efflux pumps in the membrane
  • Alter the target of the antibiotic, so it no longer has an effect
  • Bypass steps in metabolism which the antibiotic targets

How do Antibiotics Work?



β-lactams can be both natural and semi-synthetic. They work by inhibiting enzymes associated with the synthesis of peptidoglycans, so essentially inhibit cell-wall synthesis. Such antibiotics include; penicillin and its derivatives, cephalosporins, monobactams and carbapenems.

However over use of these antibiotics has selected for bacteria which have developed resistance, in the form of β-lactamase – an enzyme which hydrolyses β-lactams. The hydrolysation of β-lactam antibiotics will alter their conformation and thus they will no longer have an antimicrobial effect.

To combat this, β-lactamase inhibitors are now used alongside β-lactam antibiotics. Although β-lactamase inhibitors do not act as antibiotics alone, coupled with β-lactams, they can effectively target bacteria. β-lactamase inhibitors, inhibit the enzyme responsible for hydrolyzing β-lactam antibiotics, thus when coupled with β-lactams, the antibiotics are free to act upon their targets again – enzymes associated with cell wall synthesis. An example of this is Synulox, which contains the β-lactam amoxicillin and the β-lactamase inhibitor clavularic acid.

Bacterial β-lactamase enzymes work by hydrolyzing the ring-bond of the β -lactam which denatures their structure thus preventing them from exerting their antibiotic action.

β-lactamases can be either chromosomally derived (typically in Gram-negative bacteria) or  their genes can be found on plasmids and thus spread throughout a population. Extended spectrum β-lactamases are encoded for on plasmids (plasmids; TEM, SHU and CTX-M). These extended spectrum β-lactamases can catalyse a broad spectrum of β-lactam antibiotics.

Other mechanisms for penicillin (and derived antibiotics) resistance include; alterations in the penicillin binding protein found in bacterial cell membranes. Alterations in this protein reduces the bacterial affinity for penicillin. Similarly, the acquisition of a novel penicillin binding protein (mecA) also reduces affinity for penicillin. This gene is found in MRSA and is what makes it so resistant to penicillin its derivatives.


Aminoglycosides irreversibly bind to the 30S ribosome and freeze the initiation complex. This effectively inhibits protein synthesis within the bacterium. Aminoglycosides have a broad spectrum but do not target anaerobes. They can also have a synergistic effect when used with β-lactams. They do however pose a toxicity risk; nephrotoxicity (toxic to the kidneys) and ototoxicity (toxic to the ear, specifically the cochlea or auditory nerve).

The mechanisms for resistance against aminoglycosides include; alteration of the bacterial ribosomes which prevent aminoglycosides from binding, decreased permeability to the antibiotics or the inactivation of aminoglycosides by mechanisms such as acetylation, phosphorylation and adenylation. These mechanisms are facilitated by aminoglycoside enzymes found in the bacteria.


Tetracyclines are bacteriostatic and similarly to aminoglycosides, they bind to the 30S ribosome (however, they bind irreversibly). They also inhibit RNA from binding to the 70S ribosome and thus inhibit protein synthesis. They have a broad spectrum of targets, but there are also many tetracycline resistant strains of bacteria.


Fluoroquinolones inhibit DNA synthesis, they do this by targeting the DNA enzymes gyrase and topoisomerase. They too have a broad spectrum, but bacterial plasma-mediated QNR genes provide resistance against the antibiotic. QNR genes offer low level protection for gyrase and topoisomerase from fluoroquinolones, however, the presence of QNR genes increases the mutation rate of gyrase and topoisomerase genes. Mutation of these genes can further increase resistance to fluoroquinolones.


Trimethoprim inhibits the bacterial dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) enzyme which therefore inhibits folic acid synthesis. Again, trimethoprim has a broad spectrum, it is often used in combination with other antibiotics.

Resistance to trimethoprim occurs if the DHFR enzyme becomes less susceptible to the antibiotic e.g. through mutation, or if the metabolic step in folic acid production which requires DHFR is skipped altogether thus removing the target for trimethoprim completely.

Antibiotic Resistance

Resistance has always existed, even before antibiotic use. However the use of medical antibiotics have increased the prevalence of resistance. It is important to note though, that antibiotics do not cause resistance. They do however select for resistance already prevalent in a population.

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