Bacteria are able to temporarily disguise themselves inside the human body to avoid being detected by antibiotics, researchers have said.
Scientists from Newcastle University believe their study is the first to show that bacteria can hide their cell wall inside themselves, meaning antibiotics cannot identify a target.
The research used state of the art techniques to analyse samples from elderly patients with recurring urinary tract infections, with the results showing a potential cause of antibiotic resistance.
The World Health Organisation has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
The study’s lead author, Dr Katarzyna Mickiewicz, said: "Imagine that the wall is like the bacteria wearing a high-vis jacket.”
She explained that the process, known as “L-form switching”, involves the bacteria transforming from a regular rod or sphere shape to a random L-form state, effectively “shedding the yellow jacket and hiding it inside themselves”.
“In this form the body can't easily recognise the bacteria, so doesn't attack them, and neither do antibiotics.”
In their L-form the bacteria are flimsy and weaker, meaning a healthy patient’s immune system would then likely be able to destroy them.
However, in weakened or elderly patients they may survive, hide in the body and even regenerate the cell wall after the antibiotic has gone.
The study caputured video footage of bacteria reforming their cell wall in a five-hour process.
If the wall reforms, the patient is yet again faced with another infection.