LONDON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- British scientists say they've found genetic clues to an evolutionary war between Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria and vaccines and antibiotics that combat it.
The study has identified the genetic events by which bacteria such as S. pneumoniae -- responsible for a number of human diseases including pneumonia, ear infection and bacterial meningitis -- respond rapidly to evolve resistance to new antibiotics and vaccines, ScienceDaily.com reported Friday.
"Drug resistant forms of S. pneumoniae first came onto the radar in the 1970s," Stephen Bentley of the U.K. Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute says. "We sequenced 240 samples collected over the course of 24 years from the PMEN1 lineage of S. pneumoniae. By comparing the sequences, we can begin to understand how this bacterium evolves and reinvents itself genetically in response to human interventions."
The study shows S. pneumoniae is a pathogen that evolves and reinvents itself with remarkable speed, the researchers say.
The scientists say the bacteria's genes for antigens -- the molecules that trigger human immune response -- can change those antigens in response to vaccines meant to deal with them.
"If the immune system targets these antigens, then the bacteria can simply change them, like a criminal changing their appearance to evade detection," researcher William Hanage at the Harvard School of Public Health says.