Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology

, Volume 85, Issue 6, pp 1629–1642 | Cite as

Antibacterial free fatty acids: activities, mechanisms of action and biotechnological potential

  • Andrew P. Desbois
  • Valerie J. SmithEmail author


Amongst the diverse and potent biological activities of free fatty acids (FFAs) is the ability to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. The antibacterial properties of FFAs are used by many organisms to defend against parasitic or pathogenic bacteria. Whilst their antibacterial mode of action is still poorly understood, the prime target of FFA action is the cell membrane, where FFAs disrupt the electron transport chain and oxidative phosphorylation. Besides interfering with cellular energy production, FFA action may also result from the inhibition of enzyme activity, impairment of nutrient uptake, generation of peroxidation and auto-oxidation degradation products or direct lysis of bacterial cells. Their broad spectrum of activity, non-specific mode of action and safety makes them attractive as antibacterial agents for various applications in medicine, agriculture and food preservation, especially where the use of conventional antibiotics is undesirable or prohibited. Moreover, the evolution of inducible FFA-resistant phenotypes is less problematic than with conventional antibiotics. The potential for commercial or biomedical exploitation of antibacterial FFAs, especially for those from natural sources, is discussed.


Antibiotic Antimicrobial Drug resistance Lipid Natural products 



APD wishes to acknowledge financial support from the Wellcome Trust through the Value in People (VIP) award scheme. The authors thank Dr. Rob Hagan (University of St Andrews) for his helpful comments on this manuscript.


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© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biomedical Sciences Research Complex, School of BiologyUniversity of St AndrewsFifeUK
  2. 2.Scottish Oceans Institute (formerly Gatty Marine Laboratory)University of St AndrewsFifeUK

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