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Elife. 2019 Apr 9;8. pii: e44912. doi: 10.7554/eLife.44912.

A switch in surface polymer biogenesis triggers growth-phase-dependent and antibiotic-induced bacteriolysis.

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Department of Microbiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, United States.
The Florey Institute, Molecular Biology Biotechnology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston, United States.


Penicillin and related antibiotics disrupt cell wall synthesis to induce bacteriolysis. Lysis in response to these drugs requires the activity of cell wall hydrolases called autolysins, but how penicillins misactivate these deadly enzymes has long remained unclear. Here, we show that alterations in surface polymers called teichoic acids (TAs) play a key role in penicillin-induced lysis of the Gram-positive pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae (Sp). We find that during exponential growth, Sp cells primarily produce lipid-anchored TAs called lipoteichoic acids (LTAs) that bind and sequester the major autolysin LytA. However, penicillin-treatment or prolonged stationary phase growth triggers the degradation of a key LTA synthase, causing a switch to the production of wall-anchored TAs (WTAs). This change allows LytA to associate with and degrade its cell wall substrate, thus promoting osmotic lysis. Similar changes in surface polymer assembly may underlie the mechanism of antibiotic- and/or growth phase-induced lysis for other important Gram-positive pathogens.


S. pneumoniae; antibiotics; cell wall; infectious disease; microbiology; peptidoglycan; teichoic acid

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