A numbers game: Ribosome densities, bacterial growth, and antibiotic-mediated stasis and death

Bruce R. Levin, Ingrid C. McCall, Véronique Perrot, Howard Weiss, Armen Ovesepian, Fernando Baquero

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43 Scopus citations


We postulate that the inhibition of growth and low rates of mortality of bacteria exposed to ribosome-binding antibiotics deemed bacteriostatic can be attributed almost uniquely to these drugs reducing the number of ribosomes contributing to protein synthesis, i.e., the number of effective ribosomes. We tested this hypothesis with Escherichia coli K-12 MG1655 and constructs that had been deleted for 1 to 6 of the 7 rRNA (rrn) operons. In the absence of antibiotics, constructs with fewer rrn operons have lower maximum growth rates and longer lag phases than those with more ribosomal operons. In the presence of the ribosome-binding “bacteriostatic” antibiotics tetracycline, chloramphenicol, and azithromycin, E. coli strains with 1 and 2 rrn operons are killed at a substantially higher rate than those with more rrn operons. This increase in the susceptibility of E. coli with fewer rrn operons to killing by ribosome-targeting bacteriostatic antibiotics is not reflected in their greater sensitivity to killing by the bactericidal antibiotic ciprofloxacin, which does not target ribosomes, but also to killing by gentamicin, which does. Finally, when such strains are exposed to these ribosome-targeting bacteriostatic antibiotics, the time before these bacteria start to grow again when the drugs are removed, referred to as the post-antibiotic effect (PAE), is markedly greater for constructs with fewer rrn operons than for those with more rrn operons. We interpret the results of these other experiments reported here as support for the hypothesis that the reduction in the effective number of ribosomes due to binding to these structures provides a sufficient explanation for the action of bacteriostatic antibiotics that target these structures. IMPORTANCE Chemotherapeutic agents, including antibiotics, have been used for more than a century; nevertheless, there are still major gaps in our understanding of how these drugs operate which limit future advances in antibacterial chemotherapy. Although the molecular mechanisms by which antibiotics bind to their target structures are largely known, fundamental questions about how these drugs actually kill and/or inhibit the replication of bacteria remain unanswered and subjects of controversy. We postulate that for the broad class of ribosome-binding bacteriostatic antibiotics, their reducing the number of active (functional) ribosomes per cell provides a sufficient explanation for the abatement of replication and the low rate of decline in densities of viable cells of bacteria exposed to these drugs. Using E. coli K-12 constructs with deletions of from one to six of the seven ribosome-RNA operons and the ribosome-binding bacteriostatic antibiotics tetracycline, chloramphenicol, and azithromycin, we tested this hypothesis. The results of our experiments are consistent with this "numbers game" hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02253-16
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


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