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Antibiotic resistance and resistance mechanisms in Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli

David A. Alfredson, Victoria Korolik
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1574-6968.2007.00935.x 123-132 First published online: 1 December 2007


Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli are recognized as the most common causative agents of bacterial gastroenteritis in the world and infections with these organisms occur more frequently than do infections due to Salmonella species, Shigella species, or Escherichia coli 0157:H7. The incidence of human Campylobacter infections has increased markedly in both developed and developing countries worldwide and, more significantly, so has the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter strains, with evidence suggesting that the use of antibiotics, in particular the fluoroquinolones, as growth promoters in food animals and the veterinary industry is accelerating this trend. In this minireview, the patterns of emerging resistance to the antimicrobial agents useful in treatment of the disease are presented and the mechanisms of resistance to these drugs in Campylobacter spp are discussed.

  • Campylobacter
  • antibiotic
  • resistance
  • mechanisms


Campylobacter species, from the δ–ɛ group of Proteobacteria, are microaerophilic, nonspore-forming Gram-negative curved or spiral bacilli that are motile by means of unipolar or bipolar flagellae (Parkhill et al., 2000; Allos, 2001; Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). Campylobacteriosis is a collective description for infectious diseases caused by members of the genus Campylobacter (Coker et al., 2002). Of the infectious diseases caused by members of the Campylobacter genus, Campylobacter gastroenteritis due to Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli is the only form of disease that is of major public health importance (Nachamkin & Blaser, 2000) and increasing antimicrobial resistance in both medicine and agriculture in Campylobacter is recognized by various national authorities including the World Health Organization (WHO) as a major emerging public health concern (Moore et al., 2006). Although C. jejuni and C. coli have both been implicated as causes of diarrhoeal disease, including the most common cause of diarrhoea in travellers from developed nations (Allos, 2001), C. jejuni is the species most frequently isolated in cases of human infection (Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). In the United States, >99% of reported infections with Campylobacter are with C. jejuni (Friedman et al., 2000).

In different developed countries, incidences of Campylobacter infection are estimated at between 27 and 880 notifications/100 000 population (Friedman et al., 2000; Blumer et al., 2003; Gallay et al., 2003; Takkinen et al., 2003; CDC, 2004; Unicomb et al., 2006), and in tropical developing countries where Campylobacter infection is hyperendemic among young children (Allos, 2001), community-based studies estimate incidences of Campylobacter infection rates for children <5 years of age at between 40 000 and 60 000 notifications/100 000 population (Oberhelman & Taylor, 2000; Coker et al., 2002). In both industrialized and developing countries, Campylobacter remains one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhoea.

Emerging resistance to the drugs of choice for treatment of C. jejuni infections

Macrolides and fluoroquinolones are normally considered for treatment of Campylobacter enteritis (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001; Allos, 2001; Coker et al., 2002); tetracyclines would rarely be used. Intravenous aminoglycosides are considered the treatment of choice for serious bacteraemia and other systemic infections due to Campylobacter (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001). Until recently, however, if antimicrobial therapy was indicated for Campylobacter infection, fluoroquinolones were generally considered as the first choice. The fluoroquinolones were also considered useful for the prophylaxis of travellers’ diarrhoea (Taylor et al., 1991; Petruccelli et al., 1992). This approach was adopted because the symptoms of Campylobacter enteritis essentially mimic those of bacterial gastroenteritis caused by other enteric pathogens, such as Salmonella and Shigella spp. Because of the susceptibility of these pathogens to fluoroquinolones, empirical treatment for severe gastroenteritis with these drugs could be used without waiting for culture results (Allos, 2001).

Antimicrobial resistance has become a major public health concern in both developed and developing countries in recent years (Isenbarger et al., 2002; Nachamkin et al., 2002). Campylobacter with resistance to ciprofloxacin or other fluoroquinolones, macrolides and lincosamides, chloramphenicol, aminoglycosides, tetracycline, ampicillin and other β-lactams, cotrimoxazole, and tylosin have been reported (Padungton & Kaneene, 2003; Moore et al., 2006). In the past decade, a rapidly increasing proportion of Campylobacter strains world-wide have developed resistance to the fluoroquinolones. In 1995, the incidence of fluoroquinolone resistance in Campylobacter isolates from Thailand was reported as 84% and, in 1997–1998, the incidence of fluoroquinolone resistance in Spain was reported as 72%. Incidence of resistance to the fluoroquinolones has also increased in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. In 1998–1999, the proportion of Campylobacter isolates resistant to fluoroquinolones was reported as 10%, 18%, and 29%, respectively (Allos, 2001).

Fluoroquinolone-resistant C. jejuni were recognized during the late 1980s in Europe, where researchers suggested that such resistance was due, in part, to acquisition of fluoroquinolone-resistant strains from animal sources (Engberg et al., 2001). Several studies have linked the use of antimicrobial agents, in particular the fluoroquinolones, in the agricultural industry and veterinary medicine, with the emergence and spread of resistance among Campylobacter strains, with potentially serious effects on food safety and both veterinary and human health (Endtz et al., 1991; Jiminez et al., 1994; Khachatourians, 1998; McDermott et al., 2002; van Boven et al., 2003; Griggs et al., 2005; Humphrey et al., 2005). The initiation of the administration of the fluoroquinolone, enrofloxacin, to food animals began in the early 1990s in Asia and in European countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain coincided with primary resistance to fluoroquinolone therapy in humans in those countries (Endtz et al., 1991). Similarly, in the United Kingdom, resistance to fluoroquinolones in Campylobacter isolates was observed after the approval of the use of the fluoroquinolones as growth promoters in veterinary animals (Sam et al., 1999). In the United States, the introduction of sarafloxacin and enrofloxacin in the mid-1990s for use as growth promoters in poultry flocks also contributed to fluoroquinolone resistance, with resistance among Campylobacter isolates from humans increasing from 1.3% in 1992 to 10.2% in 1998 (Nachamkin et al., 2002).

In the Netherlands, resistance to fluoroquinolones in Campylobacter isolates from food animals has been observed since the early 1990s. Because then, there have been several reports of antimicrobial resistance in Campylobacter spp. isolated from food animals in both developed and in developing countries (Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). High-level resistance to the fluoroquinolones was reported in the Netherlands (Jacob-Reitsma et al., 1994), Spain (Saenz et al., 2000), Germany (Luber et al., 2003), and Taiwan (Li et al., 1998). Comparatively, the proportion of human isolates of Campylobacter resistant to fluoroquinolones in Spain and Taiwan was 72% and 52%, respectively, while 99% of Campylobacter isolated from broilers and pigs in Spain were resistant to fluoroquinolones, and 92% of isolates from chickens in Taiwan were resistant to the same agent (Li et al., 1998; Saenz et al., 2000). In 2001, in Germany, the proportion of human Campylobacter isolates resistant to ciprofloxacin was 41–46%, while 42% and 71% of chicken isolates of C. jejuni and C. coli, respectively, were resistant to ciprofloxacin (Luber et al., 2003). In Denmark, the incidence of resistance to several antimicrobial agents, including tylosin, virginiamycin, and erythromycin, by the Enterococci, reduced after these agents were banned from the market (Aarestrup et al., 2001). These observations indicated a significant association between antimicrobial use as growth promoters in food animals and the prevalence of bacteria resistant to the same antimicrobial agents.

Further, the selective pressure of therapeutic fluoroquinolone administration for clinically relevant infections in poultry flocks has been demonstrated unequivocally to select for ciprofloxacin-resistant campylobacters in commercially-reared poultry that enters the food chain (Griggs et al., 2005; Humphrey et al., 2005). Resistance was not as a result of the spread of a single resistant clone, but that numerous clones were selected by fluoroquinolone treatment (Humphrey et al., 2005). The gyrA mutations identified among the poultry isolates were identical to those described in human clinical isolates, the majority conferring high-level ciprofloxacin resistance (Griggs et al., 2005).

In contrast, quinolone resistance among strains of C. jejuni and C. coli in Australia remains low and this is attributed to the infrequent use of antibacterials for the treatment of diarrhoea and the regulatory prohibition on the use of fluoroquinolones in food-producing animals in Australia (Huysmans & Turnidge, 1997; Unicomb et al., 2003). Supporting this premise, Campylobacter species isolated from pigs in Australia have been shown to be uniformly susceptible to ciprofloxacin (Hart et al., 2004), although other data regarding antimicrobial susceptibility among Campylobacter isolates infecting Australian animals are limited.

In addition, induction of fluoroquinolone resistance during treatment is also well recognized and has been reported (Adler-Mosca et al., 1991; Ellis-Pegler et al., 1995). A predicted 10% of patients treated with a fluoroquinolone for Campylobacter enteritis reportedly harbour quinolone-resistant Campylobacter strains (Endtz et al., 1991) and development of resistance has been reported within 24 h of treatment with fluoroquinolones, but prolonged therapy, especially in the immunocompromised, is also a risk factor (Engberg et al., 2001). A natural resistance to the fluoroquinolone ciprofloxacin in bacterial populations isolated within city-area soil of Vancouver was also reported (Waters & Davies, 1997). DNA sequencing revealed a high degree of variation in DNA gyrase, the target of the fluoroquinolones, and therefore, without any selective pressure, these bacteria showed the same alterations in the target sequence as those isolated from clinical environments (Khachatourians, 1998).

The macrolides are now generally considered to be the optimal drug for treatment of Campylobacter infections; however, resistance to macrolides in human isolates in some countries is becoming a major public health concern. Although macrolide resistance is infrequent and stable in most countries, resistance rates of C. jejuni to the macrolides of 10% and 11% have been reported in Taiwan and Spain, respectively (Gaudreau & Michaud, 2003), while higher rates of resistance of 31%, 51%, and 79% have been reported in Bulgaria, Singapore, and Nigeria, respectively (Gibreel & Taylor, 2006); resistance to macrolides is found to be more prevalent in C. coli than C. jejuni (Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). Despite decades of use, however, trends over time for erythromycin resistance of human Campylobacter isolates show stable and low rates in countries including Sweden, Finland, and Japan (Allos, 2001; Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). The use of antimicrobial agents, including macrolide derivatives in food animals, creates selective pressure for the emergence and dissemination of resistance among human pathogens that have food-animal reservoirs (Gibreel & Taylor, 2006). Spiramycin and erythromycin, which are used to treat bovine mastitis, and tylosin, which is used in feedlot cattle to prevent hepatic abscesses and in swine production as a growth promoter, may also select for erythromycin resistance.

Induction of macrolide resistance during treatment of C. jejuni enterocolitis is rare but has been reported most frequently from among patients with HIV infection (Gaudreau & Michaud, 2003). The newer macrolides, azithromycin and clarithromycin, also have activity against C. jejuni infections; however, their cost prohibits their use in most instances as they provide no clinical advantage over erythromycin (Allos, 2001). Clarithromycin MIC90s have been reported as only twofold higher than those for erythromycin (Hardy et al., 1988) and compared with erythromycin, azithromycin does not show increased efficacy against Campylobacter sp. (Gibreel & Taylor, 2006). The emergence of Campylobacter isolates resistant to both quinolones and azithromycin in Thailand has been reported (Hoge et al., 1998) and threatens their usefulness in this demographic region.

Mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance in Campylobacter

Campylobacter species have been shown to possess the genetic mechanisms for natural transformation and conjugation, indicating that if antibiotic resistance genes were acquired, the trait would be rapidly transferred between strains. Indeed, antibiotic-resistance determinants tetO and aphA-3 are believed to have been acquired outside the genus Campylobacter from Gram-positive cocci (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988; Zilhao et al., 1988) and have been incorporated into the Campylobacter genome by heterologous genetic exchange (Taylor, 1992).

Aminoglycoside resistance

Aminoglycoside–aminocyclitol resistance genes are present in many bacterial species and commonly encode proteins that modify these antimicrobials. The enzymes are divided into three different groups (aminoglycoside phosphotransferases, aminoglycoside adenyltranferases, and aminoglycoside acetyltransferases) based on the reaction they mediate; however, all three act via a similar mechanism: the production of a 3′-O-aminoglycoside phosphotransferase (Taylor, 1992; Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001). The aminoglycoside phosphotransferases are widely distributed in nature and have been reported in both Gram-positive and Gram-negative organisms (Tenover et al., 1989). The Campylobacter-like organism BM2196 contains a chromosomally located aphA-1 gene that shares high identity with the kanamycin-resistance determinant originally derived from Escherichia coli, suggesting that this gene was acquired by Campylobacter from a member of the Enterobacteriaceae (Ouellette et al., 1987). In contrast, the aphA-3 gene, found previously only in Gram-positive cocci (Trieu-Cuot et al., 1985), was identified on a 48-kb C. coli plasmid pIP1433 Taylor, 1992) and, recently, from large plasmids identified in strains of C. jejuni (Gibreel et al., 2004). In the C. jejuni plasmids, the apha-3 gene was located downstream of an apparent insertion sequence, IS607*, or as part of a resistance cluster, aadE-sat4-aphA-3, in which the genetic organization suggests that it has been acquired by C. jejuni from a Gram-positive organism (Gibreel et al., 2004). The aadE-sat4-aphA-3 gene cluster was originally described as part of a transposon structure, Tn5405, from staphylococci (Derbise et al., 1997). More recently, a 25.7-kb C. jejuni plasmid, pCG8245, was described, which contained 10 ORFs that encoded copies of aminoglycoside-inactivating enzymes from both Gram-negative and Gram-positive sources (Nirdnoy et al., 2005). In pCG8245, the aadE-sat4-aphA-3 gene cluster mapped next to hybrids of two Helicobacter pylori transposons; ISHp608 and IS606 (Nirdnoy et al., 2005).

A third kanamycin-resistance phosphotransferase gene, apha-7, was also identified on a 14-kb C. jejuni plasmid, pS1178 (Tenover et al., 1989). The DNA sequence of the apha-7 gene demonstrated 55% identity with the apha-3 gene from streptococci; however, it showed a %G+C ratio of 32.8%, consistent with the chromosomal content of C. jejuni, suggesting that the apha-7 gene may be endemic to the Campylobacter genus (Tenover et al., 1989). Kanamycin resistance is often mediated by a plasmid that also encodes tetracycline resistance (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988) and has been reported to be transferred along with tetracycline resistance, by conjugation, from representative C. jejuni strains to a recipient strain of C. jejuni (Gibreel et al., 2004).

Tetracycline resistance

Mechanisms of tetracycline resistance include efflux-based mechanisms found in Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria (Chopra & Roberts, 2001), the protection of the ribosomal binding site of tetracycline by ribosomal protection proteins (RPPs) (Chopra & Roberts, 2001), the enzymatic degradation of tetracyclines found in Bacteroides (Speer & Salyers, 1989), and, rarely, mutations in the 16S rRNA gene found in Propionibacterium acnes and H. pylori (Ross et al., 1998; Gerrits et al., 2002; Trieber & Taylor, 2002). In both C. jejuni and C. coli, resistance to tetracycline was found to be located on a self-transmissable plasmid encoding an RPP gene, designated tet(O) (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988; Taylor & Chau, 1996; Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001; Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). The tet(O) genes demonstrated 75–76% identity with the tet(M) gene of Streptococcus pneumoniae and have a %G+C ratio of 40%, which is close to that of tet(M) but significantly higher than those of C. jejuni and C. coli chromosomal and plasmid DNAs (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988).

Tetracyclines can be divided into two groups; the atypical tetracyclines (e.g. anhydrotetracycline and 6-thiatetracycline) and typical tetracyclines (e.g. tetracycline, chlortetracycline, and minocycline) (Connell et al., 2003). The atypical tetracyclines function by disrupting bacterial membranes (Rasmussen et al., 1991; Oliva et al., 1992), whereas the typical tetracyclines, which are the subject of RPP-mediated resistance, including Tet(O) and Tet(M), bind to the ribosome and inhibit accommodation of the aminoacyl-tRNA (aa-tRNA) into the ribosomal A site and, therefore, prevent the elongation phase of protein synthesis (Chopra, 1985). Tet(O) was first cloned from a transferable plasmid pUA466 in C. jejuni (Taylor, 1986) but, like the other RPPs, may have originated in Streptomyces rimosus, which harbours otrA, an RPP determinant (Doyle et al., 1991). Similarly, many of the RPP determinants are located on mobile genetic elements, which may have facilitated their spread throughout the eubacteria via lateral genetic exchange (Connell et al., 2003).

The RPPs are grouped into the translation factor superfamily of GTPases (Leipe et al., 2002) and accordingly bind and hydrolyse GTP (Taylor et al., 1995). Tet(O) confers resistance by displacing tetracycline from its primary binding site on the ribosome (Trieber et al., 1998; Connell et al., 2003), an ability that is strictly dependent on the presence of GTP (Trieber et al., 1998), thereby freeing the ribosome from the inhibitory effects of the drug, such that the aa-tRNA can bind to the ribosomal A site and protein synthesis can continue (Connell et al., 2003).

Plasmid content in human isolates of C. jejuni has been reported to be between 13% and 52%, with the majority being resistance plasmids (Gibreel et al., 2004). Plasmids carrying tet(O) have been reported to range in size from 45 to 58 kb (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988) and have been shown recently to confer extremely high levels of tetracycline resistance (512 mg L−1), by conjugation, in some recipient Campylobacter spp. (Gibreel et al., 2004). Recently, two large tetracycline-resistance plasmids, pTet (45.2 kb) from C. jejuni strain 81–176 (Bacon et al., 2000), and pCC31 (44.7 kb) from C. coli strain CC31, have been sequenced (Batchelor et al., 2004). Interestingly, the two plasmid sequences revealed a high level of sequence identity (94.3%) and genomic organization although they were isolated 20 years apart and on different continents (Batchelor et al., 2004). Sequence analysis of the two plasmids revealed genes encoding orthologues of a putative type IV secretion system (T4SS) that has been shown to be involved in bacterial conjugation, DNA export, and protein secretion (Cao & Saier, 2001). Apart from 30 ORFs of unknown function, all the genes present in pTet and pCC31 were predicted to be involved in plasmid replication and conjugative transfer, and pTet and pCC31 were demonstrated to be self-mobilizable and capable of conjugative transfer between C. jejuni and C. coli (Batchelor et al., 2004); however, conjugative transfer to E. coli was not possible the suggesting that the host range was restricted to Campylobacter spp.

Location of the tet(O) gene on the chromosome has also been reported in 33% of tetracycline-resistant C. jejuni isolates from Alberta, Canada, lacking plasmids (Gibreel et al., 2004) and in 76% of tetracycline-resistant isolates from Australia, 26% of which did not harbour detectable plasmids (Pratt & Korolik, 2005). The presence of an insertion element IS607*, similar to IS607 found on the chromosome of H. pylori, has been reported on tet(O)-carrying plasmids (Gibreel et al., 2004) and therefore it is possible that mobile genetic elements other than transmissable plasmids may be involved in the acquisition and dissemination of tet(O).

Fluoroquinolone resistance

Fluoroquinolone resistance in most bacterial species is due to mutations in the DNA gyrase and DNA topoisomerase IV genes (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001), although other mechanisms including decreased outer membrane permeability and an efflux system have been described (Charvalos et al., 1995). The corresponding gene products are large enzymatic quarternary structures consisting of two pairs of subunits, named GyrA and GyrB (DNA gyrase), and ParC and ParE (topoisomerase IV), respectively (Payot et al., 2006). Resistance to the fluoroquinolones arises from amino acid(s) substitution(s) in the quinolone resistance-determining region (QRDR) of the corresponding topoisomerase. QRDR is located within the DNA-binding domain on the surface of these enzymes. Reduction in susceptibility to the fluoroquinolones occurs after a first-step mutation, with additional mutations in gyrA and gyrB or parC further increasing the level of resistance (Payot et al., 2006).

In Campylobacter, fluoroquinolone resistance appears to be due mainly to mutations in the gyrA gene encoding part of the GyrA subunit of DNA gyrase (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001). In C. jejuni, high-level resistance to ciprofloxacin is conferred by the point mutation Thr-86-Ile in gyrA, which is homologous to Ser-83-Leu in E. coli (Ge et al., 2005). Other reported mutations of gyrA in C. jejuni include Thr-86-Ala (high-level resistance to nalidixic acid and low-level resistance to ciprofloxacin), Ala-70-Thr, Thr-86-Lys, Asp-90-Asn, and Pro-104-Ser (Wang et al., 1993; Ge et al., 2005). Double point mutations of gyrA combining Thr-86-Ile and Asp-85-Tyr, or Asp-90-Asn, or Pro-104-Ser have also been reported (Ge et al., 2005). Mutations in the GyrB subunit in Campylobacter have not been described (Payot et al., 2006).

High-level fluoroquinolone resistance has also been reported to be caused by a point mutation Arg-139-Gln in parC, which encodes a topoisomerase (Gibreel et al., 1998); however, subsequent studies reported by other investigators failed to confirm a parC gene in Campylobacter (Parkhill et al., 2000; Bachoual et al., 2001; Luo et al., 2003; Piddock et al., 2003). In C. jejuni and C. coli, the absence of a secondary target for fluoroquinolones infers a situation whereby a unique modification in the GyrA subunit is sufficient to confer a fluoroquinolone-resistant phenotype (Payot et al., 2006).

Macrolide resistance

Macrolide resistance can be based on mechanisms including target modification by point mutation or methylation of 23S rRNA gene, hydrolysis of the drug, and efflux pumps (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001). Modification of antibiotics through the activity of esterases and/or phosphotransferases has only been reported in staphylococci (Leclercq, 2002). High-level macrolide resistance [minimum inhibition concentration (MIC) >128 µg mL−1] in C. jejuni and C. coli has been attributed to nucleotide mutations at positions 2074 and 2075 in the peptidyl transferase region in domain V of the 23S rRNA target gene (Gibreel et al., 2005; Gibreel & Taylor, 2006; Payot et al., 2006). The resistance-associated mutations in the majority of C. jejuni isolates have been identified in three copies of the target 23S rRNA gene (Gibreel & Taylor, 2006; Payot et al., 2006); however, at least two mutated copies are necessary to confer macrolide resistance (Gibreel et al., 2005). Additionally, a genetic assortment of wild-type and mutated copies has also been described (Jensen & Aarestrup, 2001; Payot et al., 2004; Gibreel et al., 2005). The predominant mutation detected among C. jejuni and C. coli is the transition mutation A2075G, which is usually associated with high-level resistance to erythromycin, although a transversion mutation at position 2074 (A2074C or A2074T) of the 23S rRNA gene as well as a double mutation A2074C/A2075G in one isolate has also been described (Vacher et al., 2005). An A2074G transition has also been found in one isolate of C. jejuni; however, the mutation was observed to be relatively unstable in the absence of erythromycin selection pressure and was demonstrated to have a negative effect on the growth rate of its host (Gibreel et al., 2005).

Mutations affecting macrolide binding have also been identified in the ribosomal proteins L4 and L22, both of which form portions of the polypeptide exit tunnel within the bacterial 70S ribosome, and have been described in several bacteria (Payot et al., 2006). Recently, 13 isolates of C. jejuni and C. coli were described, all of which possessed the characteristic A2075G mutation as well as one or more amino acid substitutions in the L4 protein and two or more substitutions in the L22 protein. A unique A103V substitution was identified in the L22 protein in each of two isolates of C. jejuni and C. coli demonstrating a high-level-erythromycin-resistant phenotype (Corcoran et al., 2006), possibly linking this substitution to the resistant phenotype. Moreover, macrolide-resistant mutants of C. jejuni and C. coli have been recently described as exhibiting modifications in the ribosomal proteins L4 (G74D) and L22 (insertions at positions 86 or 98). As synergy between the efflux pump CmeABC and these modifications in conferring resistance to the macrolides was observed (Cagliero et al., 2006).

Sulphonamides and multidrug resistance

Sulphonamide resistance in C. jejuni is also chromosomally mediated through mutational substitution of four amino acid residues in the enzyme dihydropteroate synthetase (DHPS), resulting in a reduced affinity for sulphonamides. Sulphonamides compete with PABA for DHPS, thereby preventing PABA from being incorporated into folic acid (Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001).

Integrons, carried by transposons, are a major vehicle for the spread of multiple-antibiotic resistance (Liebert et al., 1999) and have a broad distribution among Gram-negative faecal bacteria of animal origin (Lee et al., 2002). The roles of class 1 integrons and gene cassettes in the acquisition and spread of antibiotic resistance genes are well established and over 75 gene cassettes that harbour genes encoding antibiotic resistance have been reported (Partridge & Hall, 2003). Lucey (2000) reported that integron-like structures in Campylobacter spp. may account for the presence of sulphonamide resistance and Gibreel & Skold (1998, 2000) reported that trimethoprim resistance in C. jejuni was due to the acquisition of horizontally transferred dfrgenes found on the chromosome in transposons or integrons. Class 1 integron-associated tobramycin and gentamicin resistance, due to the aminoglycoside resistance gene, aacA4, has recently been reported in five per cent of C. jejuni isolated from broiler chickens; 21% of isolates possessed class 1 integrases (Lee et al., 2002). Further, in a large study of unrelated Irish thermophilic Campylobacter spp., 16% of isolates including both C. jejuni and C. coli were found to possess a complete class 1 integron with a recombined gene cassette containing the aminoglycoside-resistance gene, aadA2 (O'Halloran et al., 2004).

Resistance to more than one group of antimicrobial agents in C. jejuni may be the result of self-transmissable plasmids or efflux mechanisms (Padungton & Kaneene, 2003). An energy-dependent efflux system with a broad specificity was reported previously to be responsible for the multidrug resistance profile (resistance to β-lactams, erythromycin, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, and quinolones) in a laboratory mutant of C. jejuni (Charvalos et al., 1995). More recently, the multidrug efflux pumps, CmeABC and CmeDEF, have been identified and described in C. jejuni (Lin et al., 2002; Pumbwe & Piddock, 2002; Pumbwe et al., 2005), conferring resistance to multiple antibiotics including fluoroquinolones, erythromycin, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, and ampicillin, as well as detergents and dyes (including ethidium bromide), bile salts, and heavy metals (Lin et al., 2002). The cmeABC operon is widely distributed in C. jejuni and C. coli strains and is constitutively expressed in wild-type strains (Payot et al., 2006). The efflux pump, CmeF, belonging to the CmeDEF system, has also been identified and confers multidrug resistance, but apparently does not transport cipropfloxacin (Pumbwe et al., 2005). Although CmeDEF is expressed at a low level, it acts interactively with CmeABC in conferring resistance to antimicrobials and toxic compounds and probably functions as a secondary efflux mechanism (Akiba et al., 2006).

β-Lactam resistance

Mechanisms of resistance to some β-lactams such as ampicillin and some of the expanded-spectrum cephalosporins are variable and not very clearly defined (Lachance et al., 1991; Reina et al., 1994; Tajada et al., 1996). With the exception of the carbapenems imipenem and meropenem, the majority of C. jejuni and C. coli strains are resistant to a large number of β-lactam antimicrobial agents (Lariviere et al., 1986; Aarestrup & Engberg, 2001). In general, C. jejuni and C. coli isolates show intrinsic resistance to penicillin G and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins related to their slight binding to PBPs present in the bacteria (Tajada et al., 1996). In addition, other acquired resistance mechanisms such as the production of β-lactamase may also be found (Taylor & Courvalin, 1988; Lachance et al., 1991). Most recently, a novel class D β-lactamase gene, blaOXA-61, from an Australian isolate of C. jejuni was described (Alfredson & Korolik, 2005), which conferred resistance to the β-lactams ampicillin, piperacillin, and carbenicillin in a β-lactam susceptible strain of C. jejuni.


The incidence of Campylobacter infection is increasing worldwide and trends in antimicrobial resistance have shown a clear association between use of antibiotics in the veterinary industry and resistant isolates of Campylobacter in humans. Campylobacter jejuni has also been able to acquire resistance-determinants from outside of its genus, in particular, from Gram-positive organisms and genes have been able to be incorporated into plasmids or into the chromosome via insertion sequences on transposons or integrons. The spread of these resistance determinants both within and outside of the Campylobacter genus is likely.

Globally, the incidences of resistance to several key antibiotics useful in the treatment of Campylobacter disease are increasing and multiple resistance patterns to several classes of antibiotics are emerging. In many countries, resistance in Campylobacter to the fluoroquinolones has limited its usefulness as a drug of choice in the treatment of the disease, although in countries such as Australia, the fluoroquinolones remain an effective antibiotic. Similarly, resistance to erythromycin is increasing in some countries, particularly in C. coli; however, the incidence of erythromycin resistance in human Campylobacter isolates is still relatively low and stable and currently erythromycin should be regarded as the drug of choice in the treatment of Campylobacter disease. Gentamicin also remains effective against campylobacters, although it would only normally be considered for serious Campylobacter infections.

With the global concern with the increasing prevalence of resistance among clinically important bacterial pathogens, monitoring and surveillance of antimicrobial resistance of Campylobacter isolates, infection prevention, and strategies for regulatory control of antibiotic use will enable effective management of the progressive increase in antimicrobial resistance among campylobacters in the human global population.


  • Editor: Ian Henderson


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