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Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2002 Oct;46(10):3133-41.

Multidrug pump inhibitors uncover remarkable activity of plant antimicrobials.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Plant antimicrobials are not used as systemic antibiotics at present. The main reason for this is their low level of activity, especially against gram-negative bacteria. The reported MIC is often in the range of 100 to 1,000 micro g/ml, orders of magnitude higher than those of common broad-spectrum antibiotics from bacteria or fungi. Major plant pathogens belong to the gram-negative bacteria, which makes the low level of activity of plant antimicrobials against this group of microorganisms puzzling. Gram-negative bacteria have an effective permeability barrier, comprised of the outer membrane, which restricts the penetration of amphipathic compounds, and multidrug resistance pumps (MDRs), which extrude toxins across this barrier. It is possible that the apparent ineffectiveness of plant antimicrobials is largely due to the permeability barrier. We tested this hypothesis in the present study by applying a combination of MDR mutants and MDR inhibitors. A panel of plant antimicrobials was tested by using a set of bacteria representing the main groups of plant pathogens. The human pathogens Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium were also tested. The results show that the activities of the majority of plant antimicrobials were considerably greater against the gram-positive bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus megaterium and that disabling of the MDRs in gram-negative species leads to a striking increase in antimicrobial activity. Thus, the activity of rhein, the principal antimicrobial from rhubarb, was potentiated 100- to 2,000-fold (depending on the bacterial species) by disabling the MDRs. Comparable potentiation of activity was observed with plumbagin, resveratrol, gossypol, coumestrol, and berberine. Direct measurement of the uptake of berberine, a model plant antimicrobial, confirmed that disabling of the MDRs strongly increases the level of penetration of berberine into the cells of gram-negative bacteria. These results suggest that plants might have developed means of delivering their antimicrobials into bacterial cells. These findings also suggest that plant antimicrobials might be developed into effective, broad-spectrum antibiotics in combination with inhibitors of MDRs.

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