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Mol Microbiol. 2007 Feb;63(4):937-40.

How do antibiotic-producing bacteria ensure their self-resistance before antibiotic biosynthesis incapacitates them?

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John Innes Centre, Department of Molecular Microbiology, Norwich Research Park, Colney, Norwich, UK.


Acquired antibiotic resistance among dangerous bacterial pathogens is an increasing medical problem. While in Mycobacterium tuberculosis this occurs by mutation in the genes encoding the targets for antibiotic action, other pathogens have generally gained their resistance genes by horizontal gene transfer from non-pathogenic bacteria. The ultimate source of many of these genes is almost certainly the actinomycetes that make the antibiotics and therefore need self-protective mechanisms to avoid suicide. How do they ensure that they are resistant at the time when intracellular antibiotic concentrations reach potentially lethal levels? In this issue of Molecular Microbiology, Tahlan et al. describe a solution to this problem in which an antibiotically inactive precursor of a Streptomyces coelicolor antibiotic induces resistance -- in this example by means of a trans-membrane export pump -- so that the organism is already primed for resistance at the time when it is needed. The authors generalize their interpretation to other cases where antibiotic resistance depends on export, but it will be interesting to find out whether it could in fact apply more widely, to include the other major mechanisms of resistance: target modification and the synthesis of antibiotics via a series of chemically modified intermediates, with removal of the protective group at the time of secretion into the outside medium.

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