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REVIEW: Persister Cells and the Riddle of Biofilm Survival

K. Lewis

Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; fax: 617-373-3724; E-mail: k.lewis@neu.edu

Received September 27, 2004
This review addresses a long-standing puzzle in the life and death of bacterial populations--the existence of a small fraction of essentially invulnerable cells. Bacterial populations produce persisters, cells that neither grow nor die in the presence of bactericidal agents, and thus exhibit multidrug tolerance (MDT). The mechanism of MDT and the nature of persisters, which were discovered in 1944, have remained elusive. Our research has shown that persisters are largely responsible for the recalcitrance of infections caused by bacterial biofilms. The majority of infections in the developed world are caused by biofilms, which sparked a renewed interest in persisters. We developed a method to isolate persister cells, and obtained a gene expression profile of Escherichia coli persisters. The profile indicated an elevated expression of toxin-antitoxin modules and other genes that can block important cellular functions such as translation. Bactericidal antibiotics kill cells by corrupting the target function, such as translation. For example, aminoglycosides interrupt translation, producing toxic peptides. Inhibition of translation leads to a shutdown of other cellular functions as well, preventing antibiotics from corrupting their targets, which will give rise to tolerant persister cells. Overproduction of chromosomally-encoded “toxins” such as RelE, an inhibitor of translation, or HipA, causes a sharp increase in persisters. Deletion of the hipBA module produces a sharp decrease in persisters in both stationary and biofilm cells. HipA is thus the first validated persister/MDT gene. We conclude that the function of “toxins” is the exact opposite of the term, namely, to protect the cell from lethal damage. It appears that stochastic fluctuations in the levels of MDT proteins lead to formation of rare persister cells. Persisters are essentially altruistic cells that forfeit propagation in order to ensure survival of kin cells in the presence of lethal factors.
KEY WORDS: persisters, multidrug tolerance, biofilms, death, survival, altruism