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Antimicrob Agents Chemother. Mar 1995; 39(3): 694–701.
PMCID: PMC162607

Recognition of multiple effects of ethambutol on metabolism of mycobacterial cell envelope.


Ethambutol is known to rapidly inhibit biosynthesis of the arabinan component of the mycobacterial cell wall core polymer, arabinogalactan (K. Takayama and J. O. Kilburn, Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. 33:1493-1499, 1989). This effect was confirmed, and it was also shown that ethambutol inhibits biosynthesis of the arabinan of lipoarabinomannan, a lipopolysaccharide noncovalently associated with the cell wall core. In contrast to cell wall core arabinan, which is completely inhibited by ethambutol, synthesis of the arabinan of lipoarabinomannan was only partially affected, demonstrating a differential effect on arabinan synthesis in the two locales. Further studies of the effect of ethambutol on cell wall biosynthesis revealed that the synthesis of galactan in the cell wall core is strongly inhibited by the drug. In addition, ethambutol treatment resulted in the cleavage of arabinosyl residues present in the mycobacterial cell wall; more than 50% of the arabinan in the cell wall core was removed from the wall 1 h after addition of the drug to growing mycobacterial cultures. In contrast, galactan was not released from the cell wall during ethambutol treatment. The natural function of the arabinosyl-releasing enzyme remains unknown, but its action in combination with inhibition of synthesis during ethambutol treatment results in severe disruption of the mycobacterial cell wall. Accordingly, ethambutol-induced damage to the cell wall provides a ready molecular explanation for the known synergetic effects of ethambutol with other chemotherapeutic agents. Nevertheless, the initial direct effect of ethambutol remains to be elucidated.

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Selected References

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