Superbugs and Antibiotic Resistance

The acquisition of antibiotic resistance (AR) genes has rendered important pathogens nearly or fully unresponsive to antibiotics. It is widely accepted that these so-called superbugs acquire AR genes through horizontal gene transfer (HGT) with members of the human microbiome with whom they come into contact. Despite the importance of this process for the spread of antibiotic resistance, surprisingly little is known about the scope and dynamics of HGT in natural bacterial settings.

With this NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Ilana L. Brito, Biomedical Engineering, is employing a combination of high-throughput, single-cell technologies and computational approaches to expose the specific conditions under which these genes may become mobilized.

Brito’s overall vision is to examine the scope and dynamics of HGT in the human gut microbiome, by developing both experimental and simulated methods for detecting the process. With a suite of new tools developed in her lab, she aims to provide comprehensive information on the origin, gene content, and expression levels of mobile genetic elements to capture what is currently being transferred between species.                                                      

Brito and her team are also working to further test the hypothesis that specific perturbations to our microbiomes induce HGT. Using a combination of mouse models and studies with human subjects, she is testing whether behaviors that induce DNA damage and cellular stress—namely antibiotic use, infection, and fecal microbiota transplant—result in an increase of HGT and ultimately in the spread of AR genes.

NIH Award Number: 1DP2HL141007-01

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$2.5 Million spanning 5 years

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