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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1975 Oct;72(10):4162-6.

Mechanism of action of penicillin: triggering of the pneumococcal autolytic enzyme by inhibitors of cell wall synthesis.


During penicillin treatment of an autolysin defective mutant pneumococcus we have observed three novel phenomena: (i) Growth of the mutant cultures is inhibited by the same concentrations of penicillin that induce lysis in the wild type. (ii) Mutant bacteria treated with the minimum growth inhibitory concentration of penicillin will lyse upon the addition of wild-type autolysin to the growth medium. Chloramphenicol and other inhibitors of protein synthesis protect the cells against lysis by exogenous enzyme. Sensitivity of the cells to exogenous autolysin requires treatment with penicillin or other inhibitors of cell wall synthesis (e.g., D-cycloserine or fosfonomycin) since exogenous autolysin alone has no effect on bacterial growth. (iii) Treatment with penicillin (or other inhibitors of cell wall synthesis) causes the escape into the medium of a choline-containing macromolecule that has properties suggesting that it contains pneumococcal lipoteichoic acid (Forssman antigen). Each one of these three phenomena (growth inhibition, sensitization to exogenous autolysin, and leakage of lipoteichoic acid) shows the same dose response as that of the penicillin-induced lysis of wild-type pneumococci. On the basis of these findings we propose a new hypothesis for the mechanism of penicillin-induced lysis of bacteria. It is suggested that inhibition of cell wall synthesis by any means triggers bacterial autolytic enzymes by destabilizing the endogenous complex of an autolysin inhibitor (lipoteichoic acid) and autolytic enzyme. Escape of lipoteichoic acid-like material to the growth medium is a consequence of this labilization. Chloramphenicol protects bacteria against penicillin-induced lysis by interfering with the activity of the autolytic enzyme, rather than by depleting the concentration of the enzyme at the cell surface.

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