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Slow and steady wins the race: an examination of bacterial persistence

Division of Natural Sciences, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana 46953, USA

Bacterial persistence is a state of metabolic dormancy among a small fraction (<1%) of a genetically identical population of cells that, as a result, becomes transiently resistant to environmental stressors. Such cells, called persisters, are able to survive indeterminate periods of exposure to challenging and even hostile environmental conditions, including nutrient deprivation, oxidative stress, or the presence of an antibiotic to which the bacterium would normally be susceptible. Subpopulations of cells having the persister phenotype is also a common feature of biofilms, in which limited space, hypoxia, and nutrient deficiencies all contribute to the onset of persistence. Microbiologists have been aware of bacterial persistence since the early days of antibiotic development. However, in recent years the significance of this phenomenon has been brought into new focus, as persistent bacterial infections that require multiple rounds of antibiotic treatment are becoming a more widespread clinical challenge. Here, we provide an overview of the major features of bacterial persistence, including the various conditions that precipitate persister formation and a discussion of several of the better-characterized molecular mechanisms that trigger this distinctive mode of bacterial dormancy.
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