Digital Evolution Applied to the Study of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

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Lead Author Type

CIS Masters Student


Dr. Greg Wolffe; wolffe@gvsu.edu

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Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern throughout the world. The standard response to this problem has been to continuously develop new antibiotics to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria; but it’s not clear who will prevail in this war of adaptability. We propose an alternative approach that utilizes non-antibiotic resistant bacteria, designed to outcompete the antibiotic-resistant strand. The non-antibiotic resistant strain will need to incorporate some form of fitness advantage to make it selectively superior. In addition, it must be unable to perform horizontal gene transfer, a method whereby it could obtain antibiotic resistance from other bacteria.

To simulate and experiment with this proposed scenario a digital evolution software platform known as Avida was used. Avida allows researchers to create and configure a digital environment in which self-replicating organisms compete for limited resources. The Avida platform was used to cultivate several distinct “organisms”, including populations with the ability to process various sugars, and that had their mechanism for horizontal gene transfer disabled. Our hypothesis, which was confirmed, was that the ability to process sugar conferred an energy advantage that allowed those organisms to reproduce faster and ultimately dominate the population.

The experiments were then repeated; applied using the population dynamics of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a well-known and dangerous skin infection. Results showed that it would take 3.2 days for sugar-metabolizing, but non-antibiotic resistant MRSA to take over. The implication of this result is that existing antibiotics could then effectively be used to treat the infection.

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