Transcription-coupled DNA repair underlies variation in persister awakening and the emergence of resistance
Persisters constitute a population of temporarily antibiotic-tolerant variants in an isogenic bacterial population and are considered an important cause of relapsing infections. It is currently unclear how cellular damage inflicted by antibiotic action is reversed upon persister state exit and how this relates to antibiotic resistance development. We demonstrate that persisters, upon fluoroquinolone treatment, accumulate oxidative damage which is repaired through nucleotide excision repair. Detection of the damage occurs via transcription-coupled repair using UvrD-mediated backtracking or Mfd-mediated displacement of the RNA polymerase. This competition results in heterogeneity in persister awakening lags. Most persisters repair the oxidative DNA damage, displaying a mutation rate equal to the untreated population. However, the promutagenic factor Mfd increases the mutation rate in a persister subpopulation. Our data provide in-depth insight in the molecular mechanisms underlying persister survival and pinpoints Mfd as an important molecular factor linking persistence to resistance development.