STD Awareness: Genetics and the Gonococcus

Image: CDC

Ever since the discovery of effective antibacterial therapies less than a century ago, humans have been able to easily cure gonorrhea, the sexually transmitted scourge that laid waste to fallopian tubes and robbed newborns of vision. Most of us in the developed world have forgotten that this disease was once a leading cause of infertility in women and blindness in babies — and still is in much of the developing world.

Unfortunately, gonococci — the species of bacteria that cause gonorrhea — have been evolving resistance to every antibiotic we’ve thrown at them, including sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot — and resistance is emerging to those drugs, as well.


Gonococci don’t swap potato salad recipes at family reunions — they swap genetic material!


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. Gonococci can acquire resistance to antibiotics in three ways.

First, a genetic mutation can endow bacteria with special antibiotic-fighting powers, making it harder for a drug like penicillin to attach to their cells and destroy them. Such a mutant is more likely to gain evolutionary traction if it finds itself in an antibiotic-drenched environment in which resistance to that drug allows it to “outcompete” other bacteria. Indeed, antibiotic resistance was first documented in the 1940s, just years after sulfonamides and penicillin were introduced as the first effective cures for gonorrhea. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea

Under the microscope, Neisseria gonorrhoeae infects larger human cells (click to enlarge). The bacteria resemble tiny pairs of coffee beans. Image: Dr. Norman Jacobs, CDC

Writing about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), one must walk the line between warning readers of risks and engaging in full-fledged alarmism. So it’s a bit disconcerting that researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine last month declared that it’s “time to sound the alarm”: The emergence of completely antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is becoming more of a realistic threat and less of a theoretical possibility. The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are evolving faster than we can develop effective antibiotics against them, and a return to the era of untreatable gonorrhea could see a rise in the particularly nasty complications that arise from a long-term gonorrheal infection, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and epididymitis.


There are genes that confer resistance to every single antibiotic we use to cure gonorrhea. If they all combine within one organism, we might have a superbug on our hands.


Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a species of tricky bacteria that cause gonorrhea, which can infect the mouth, throat, rectum, urethra, cervix, and even eyes. These bacteria have vexed us for thousands of years, having evolved many strategies for entrenching themselves in our bodies. They can alter the proteins that adorn their surfaces, rendering our immune systems incapable of recognizing them. They can form colonies in which they work together to manipulate our cell surfaces with their retracting appendages until they’re allowed entry inside, where they can surreptitiously multiply.

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that has acquired resistance to methicillin, as well as pretty much every other antibiotic to boot. MRSA is an example of evolution by natural selection — what didn’t kill its ancestors made them stronger, spawning a drug-resistant strain.

Why are we talking about MRSA in a post about STDs? It’s not just because MRSA has apparently found a way to be transmitted sexually, but also because it helps make the concept of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea more accessible. It wasn’t until less than a century ago that we finally developed a magic-bullet treatment for gonorrhea, and for a handful of decades it was quickly and easily treated with a dose of penicillin. Enter evolution by natural selection. Continue reading