Date: 06 May 2010

Avoidance of suicide in antibiotic-producing microbes

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Many microbes synthesize potentially autotoxic antibiotics, mainly as secondary metabolites, against which they need to protect themselves. This is done in various ways, ranging from target-based strategies (i.e. modification of normal drug receptors or de novo synthesis of the latter in drug-resistant form) to the adoption of metabolic shielding and/or efflux strategies that prevent drug–target interactions. These self-defence mechanisms have been studied most intensively in antibiotic-producing prokaryotes, of which the most prolific are the actinomycetes. Only a few documented examples pertain to lower eukaryotes while higher organisms have hardly been addressed in this context. Thus, many plant alkaloids, variously described as herbivore repellents or nitrogen excretion devices, are truly antibiotics—even if toxic to humans. As just one example, bulbs of Narcissus spp. (including the King Alfred daffodil) accumulate narciclasine that binds to the larger subunit of the eukaryotic ribosome and inhibits peptide bond formation. However, ribosomes in the Amaryllidaceae have not been tested for possible resistance to narciclasine and other alkaloids. Clearly, the prevalence of suicide avoidance is likely to extend well beyond the remit of the present article.