Bacteria can communicate with each other as a means of building up a resistance to antibiotics, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE.

The study, carried out by Miguel Valvano and Omar El-Halfawy, reveals that when the number of antibiotic resistant cells within a bacterial population increases, small molecules are shared with less resistant cells, therefore spreading the resistance to antibiotics.

El-Halfawy explains: “These small molecules can be utilized and produced by almost all bacteria with limited exceptions, so we can regard these small molecules as a universal language that can be understood by most bacteria.”

The researchers worked under the Western University in Canada and identified that bacteria such as Burkholderia cenocepacia, a cause of severe infections in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) or with weaker immune systems, can perform the chemical communication.

The researchers say the overproduction of small molecules by some Burkholderia cenocepacia bacteria protects the more sensitive Burkholderia cells, as well as other bacteria, including another CF pathogen, E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

El-Halfawy adds: “The other way that Burkholderia communicates its high level of resistance is by releasing small proteins to mop up and to bind lethal antibiotics, thus reducing their effectiveness.”

The resistance of antibiotics is a widely studied issue. Previous data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), shows that around 25,000 die in the European Union each year from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

The ECDC data reveals that there has been a recent increase in combined resistance to multiple antibiotics in E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae in over a third of European countries (EU and European Economic Area countries).

In January 2013, the chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies warned that within the next 20 years there may be no antibiotics available that can deal with routine operations – because of the problem of antibiotic resistance.

The next step from this most recent study, researcher Valvano says, is to find a way to tackle bacterial resistance to antibiotics: “This paves the way to design novel drugs to block the effects of these chemicals, thus effectively reducing the burden of antimicrobial resistance.”