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Phenotypic switching of antibiotic resistance circumvents permanent costs in Staphylococcus aureus

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Bacterial antibiotic resistance is often associated with a fitness cost in the absence of the antibiotic [1] and [2]. We have examined a resistance mechanism in Staphylococcus aureus that negates these costs. Exposure to gentamicin both in vitro and in vivo has been reported to result in the emergence of a gentamicin-resistant small colony variant (SCV) [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] and [8]. We show that the emergence of SCVs following exposure to gentamicin results from a rapid switch and that bacteria exposed to cycles of gentamicin followed by antibiotic-free medium repeatedly switched between a resistant SCV and a sensitive parental phenotype (revertants). The fitness of revertants relative to S. aureus with stable gentamicin resistance was greater in drug-free media, which suggests that S. aureus has evolved an inducible and reversible resistance mechanism that circumvents a permanent cost to fitness.

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