Combatting bacterial infections by killing persister cells with mitomycin C

Brian W. Kwan, Nityananda Chowdhury, Thomas K. Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Persister cells are a multi-drug tolerant subpopulation of bacteria that contribute to chronic and recalcitrant clinical infections such as cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis. Persisters are metabolically dormant, so they are highly tolerant to all traditional antibiotics which are mainly effective against actively growing cells. Here, we show that the FDA-approved anti-cancer drug mitomycin C (MMC) eradicates persister cells through a growth-independent mechanism. MMC is passively transported and bioreductively activated, leading to spontaneous cross-linking of DNA, which we verify in both active and dormant cells. We find MMC effectively eradicates cells grown in numerous different growth states (e.g. planktonic cultures and highly robust biofilm cultures) in both rich and minimal media. Additionally, MMC is a potent bactericide for a broad range of bacterial persisters, including commensal Escherichia coliK-12 as well as pathogenic species of E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. We also demonstrate the efficacy of MMC in an animal model and a wound model, substantiating the clinical applicability of MMC against bacterial infections. Therefore, MMC is the first broad-spectrum compound capable of eliminating persister cells, meriting investigation as a new approach for the treatment of recalcitrant infections.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4406-4414
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental microbiology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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