Sub-inhibitory concentrations of some antibiotics can drive diversification of Pseudomonas aeruginosa populations in artificial sputum medium

Elli A. Wright, Joanne L. Fothergill, Steve Paterson, Michael A. Brockhurst, Craig Winstanley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Pseudomonas aeruginosa populations within the cystic fibrosis lung exhibit extensive phenotypic and genetic diversification. The resultant population diversity is thought to be crucial to the persistence of infection and may underpin the progression of disease. However, because cystic fibrosis lungs represent ecologically complex and hostile environments, the selective forces driving this diversification in vivo remain unclear. We took an experimental evolution approach to test the hypothesis that sub-inhibitory antibiotics can drive diversification of P. aeruginosa populations. Replicate populations of P. aeruginosa LESB58 were cultured for seven days in artificial sputum medium with and without sub-inhibitory concentrations of various clinically relevant antibiotics. We then characterised diversification with respect to 13 phenotypic and genotypic characteristics. Results: We observed that higher population diversity evolved in the presence of azithromycin, ceftazidime or colistin relative to antibiotic-free controls. Divergence occurred due to alterations in antimicrobial susceptibility profiles following exposure to azithromycin, ceftazidime and colistin. Alterations in colony morphology and pyocyanin production were observed following exposure to ceftazidime and colistin only. Diversification was not observed in the presence of meropenem. Conclusions: Our study indicates that certain antibiotics can promote population diversification when present in sub-inhibitory concentrations. Hence, the choice of antibiotic may have previously unforeseen implications for the development of P. aeruginosa infections in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients.

Original languageEnglish
Article number170
JournalBMC Microbiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2013


  • Antibiotics
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Population biology
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa


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