Multidrug-resistant clinical isolates are common in certain pathogens, but rare in others. This pattern may be due to the fact that mutations shaping resistance have species-specific effects. To investigate this issue, we transferred a range of resistance-conferring mutations and a full resistance gene into Escherichia coli and closely related bacteria. We found that resistance mutations in one bacterial species frequently provide no resistance, in fact even yielding drug hypersensitivity in close relatives. In depth analysis of a key gene involved in aminoglycoside resistance (trkH) indicated that preexisting mutations in other genes—intergenic epistasis—underlie such extreme differences in mutational effects between species. Finally, reconstruction of adaptive landscapes under multiple antibiotic stresses revealed that mutations frequently provide multidrug resistance or elevated drug susceptibility (i.e., collateral sensitivity) only with certain combinations of other resistance mutations. We conclude that resistance and collateral sensitivity are contingent upon the genetic makeup of the bacterial population, and such contingency could shape the long-term fate of resistant bacteria. These results underlie the importance of species-specific treatment strategies.

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