Sandia researchers study evolution patterns of drug resistance

Sandia National Laboratories researchers Kelly Williams, left, and Corey Hudson view a segment of the Klebsiella pneumoniae genome around two genomic islands. | Courtesy of Sandia Labs
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are studying the evolutionary pathways of drug-resistant pathogens to get a better understanding of how medical professionals can combat them.

Through their genome-sequencing activity, researchers Corey Hudson, Robert Meagher, Kelly Williams and Zach Brent have identified mechanisms that allow bacteria to share genetic information and to foster antibiotics resistance.

One of these mechanics uses mobile DNA strands that are available in plasmids that are able to splice themselves into the chromosomes of a bacterium. According to the researchers these plasmids and genomic islands are a part of a wide variety of development across the genomic spectrum.

“We’re just starting on this path,” Williams said. “It’s a harder problem to predict emerging pathogens, rather than just observe them. Determining what is pathogenic in the first place and how it might become more pathogenic is a research challenge.”

Sandia states that genome sequencing of bacteria over the past 20 years indicates that gene sharing is common among multiple species of microbes.

“They are not so much generating new genes all the time — that does happen slowly — but what they mainly do is shuffle genes around,” Williams said. “The new gene combinations can quickly give bacteria a new pathogenic niche. They may then invade more tissues or survive in even more conditions.”

The research team has also built a database of genomic islands that contains approximately 4,000 specimen. Processing specimens through the database can indicate global features of these genomic islands and determine unique features within a group of bacteria.

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