Systematic analysis of efflux pump-mediated antiseptic resistance in staphylococcus aureus suggests a need for greater antiseptic stewardship

Patrick T. LaBreck, Audrey C. Bochi-Layec, Joshua Stanbro, Gina Dabbah-Krancher, Mark P. Simons, D. Scott Merrell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Staphylococcus aureus-associated infections can be difficult to treat due to multidrug resistance. Thus, infection prevention is critical. Cationic antiseptics, such as chlorhexidine (CHX) and benzalkonium chloride (BKC), are liberally used in health care and community settings to prevent infection. However, increased administration of antiseptics has selected for S. aureus strains that show reduced susceptibilities to cationic antiseptics. This increased resistance has been associated with carriage of specific efflux pumps (QacA, QacC, and NorA). Since prior published studies focused on different strains and on strains carrying only a single efflux gene, the relative importance of these various systems to antiseptic resistance is difficult to ascertain. To overcome this, we engineered a collection of isogenic S. aureus strains that harbored norA, qacA, and qacC, individually or in combination. MIC assays showed that qacA was associated with increased resistance to CHX, cetrimide (CT), and BKC, qacC was associated with resistance to CT and BKC, and norA was necessary for basal-level resistance to the majority of tested antiseptics. When all three pumps were present in a single strain, an additive effect was observed in the MIC for CT. Transcriptional analysis revealed that expression of qacA and norA was significantly induced following exposure to BKC. Alarmingly, in a strain carrying qacA and norA, preexposure to BKC increased CHX tolerance. Overall, our results reveal increased antiseptic resistance in strains carrying multiple efflux pumps and indicate that preexposure to BKC, which is found in numerous daily-use products, can increase CHX tolerance. IMPORTANCE S. aureus remains a significant cause of disease within hospitals and communities. To reduce the burden of S. aureus infections, antiseptics are ubiquitously used in our daily lives. Furthermore, many antiseptic compounds are dual purpose and are found in household products. The increased abundance of antiseptic compounds has selected for S. aureus strains that carry efflux pumps that increase resistance to antiseptic compounds; however, the effect of carrying multiple pumps within S. aureus is unclear. We demonstrated that an isogenic strain carrying multiple efflux pumps had an additive resistance phenotype to cetrimide. Moreover, in a strain carrying qacA and norA, increased chlorhexidine tolerance was observed after the strain was preexposed to subinhibitory concentrations of a different common-use antiseptic. Taken together, our findings demonstrate cooperation between antiseptic resistance efflux pumps and suggest that their protective phenotype may be exacerbated by priming with subinhibitory concentrations of household antiseptics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00959
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • Antimicrobial agents
  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Chlorhexidine
  • Efflux pumps
  • Staphylococcus aureus


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