Stanczak-Mrozek KI, Manne A, Knight GM, Gould K, Witney AA, Lindsay JA
OBJECTIVES: MRSA is a major antimicrobial resistance (AMR) pathogen. The reservoir of infecting isolates is colonization, which is the site of evolutionary selection. The aim was to identify if AMRs in colonizing MRSA populations diversified and potential mechanisms of resistance gene transfer in vivo. METHODS: Nasal swabs from 38 MRSA carriers admitted to hospital were plated and 20 individual colonies from each patient tested for phenotypic antibiotic susceptibility and genetically for lineage, carriage of four prophages and three plasmid families. Free bacteriophages were detected in swabs as well as their capacity for transducing resistance genes. RESULTS: Nine (24%) patients carried phenotypic AMR variants and 24 (63%) carried prophage and plasmid variants. If a single colony was selected for testing, the probability of detecting all AMR in that patient was 87%. Sixty-four different AMR and mobile genetic element (MGE) profiles were detected, mostly in the MRSA CC22 background (where CC stands for clonal complex), with up to 8 profiles per patient. Nearly half of the patients carried detectable free bacteriophages and phages successfully transduced resistance genes between laboratory and patient isolates in vitro. WGS showed MRSA core genomes were stable, while AMR and MGEs varied. CONCLUSIONS: 'Clouds' of MRSA variants that have acquired or lost AMR and MGEs are common in nasal colonizing populations and bacteriophages may play an important role in gene transfer. Accurate estimation of AMR and genetic variability has implications for diagnostics, epidemiology, antimicrobial stewardship and understanding the evolutionary selection of AMR in colonizing populations.