Preprint open access publication

Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus emerged long before the introduction of methicillin in to clinical practice

bioRxiv, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,


DOI:10.1101/122408, Dimensions: pub.1085112902,



  1. (1) University of Dundee, grid.8241.f
  2. (2) University of St Andrews, grid.11914.3c
  3. (3) Public Health England, grid.271308.f
  4. (4) Wellcome Sanger Institute, grid.10306.34
  5. (5) Hvidovre Hospital, grid.411905.8, Capital Region
  6. (6) University of Copenhagen, grid.5254.6, KU
  7. (7) Rockefeller University, grid.134907.8
  8. (8) Universidade Nova de Lisboa, grid.10772.33


Abstract The spread of drug-resistant bacterial pathogens pose a major threat to global health. It is widely recognised that the widespread use of antibiotics has generated selective pressures that have driven the emergence of resistant strains. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was first observed in 1960, less than one year after the introduction of this second generation β-lactam antibiotic into clinical practice. Epidemiological evidence has always suggested that resistance arose around this period, when the mecA gene encoding methicillin resistance carried on an SCC mec element, was horizontally transferred to an intrinsically sensitive strain of S. aureus . Whole genome sequencing a collection of the very first MRSA isolates allowed us to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the archetypal MRSA. Bayesian phylogenetic reconstruction was applied to infer the time point at which this early MRSA lineage arose and when SCC mec was acquired. MRSA emerged in the mid 1940s, following the acquisition of an ancestral type I SCC mec element, some fourteen years prior to the first therapeutic use of methicillin. Methicillin use was not the original driving factor in the evolution of MRSA as previously thought. Rather it was the widespread use of first generation β-lactams such as penicillin in the years prior to the introduction of methicillin, which selected for S. aureus strains carrying the mecA determinant. Crucially this highlights how new drugs, introduced to circumvent known resistance mechanisms, can be rendered ineffective by unrecognised adaptations in the bacterial population due to the historic selective landscape created by the widespread use of other antibiotics.


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