Inhibitors of Protein Biosynthesis


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The major classes of protein synthesis inhibitors target the 30S or 50S subunits of cytoplasmic

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

The cytoplasmic ribosomes found in animal cells (80S) are structurally distinct from those found in bacterial cells (70S), making protein biosynthesis a good selective target for antibacterial drugs.

Protein Synthesis Inhibitors That Bind the 30S Subunit

Aminoglycosides are large, highly polar antibacterial drugs that bind to the 30S subunit of bacterial ribosomes, impairing the proofreading ability of the ribosomal complex. This impairment causes mismatches between codons and anticodons, resulting in the production of proteins with incorrect amino acids and shortened proteins that insert
into the cytoplasmic membrane. Disruption of the cytoplasmic membrane by the faulty proteins kills the bacterial cells. The aminoglycosides, which include drugs such as streptomycin, gentamicin, neomycin, and kanamycin, are potent broad-spectrum antibacterials. However, aminoglycosides have been shown to be nephrotoxic (damaging to kidney), neurotoxic (damaging to the nervous system), and ototoxic (damaging to the ear).

Another class of antibacterial compounds that bind to the 30S subunit is the tetracyclines. In contrast to aminoglycosides, these drugs are bacteriostatic and inhibit protein synthesis by blocking the association of tRNAs with the ribosome during translation. Naturally occurring tetracyclines produced by various strains of Streptomyces
were first discovered in the 1940s, and several semisynthetic tetracyclines, including doxycycline and tigecycline have also been produced. Although the tetracyclines are broad spectrum in their coverage of bacterial pathogens, side effects that can limit their use include phototoxicity, permanent discoloration of developing teeth, and liver toxicity
with high doses or in patients with kidney impairment.

Protein Synthesis Inhibitors That Bind the 50S Subunit

There are several classes of antibacterial drugs that work through binding to the 50S subunit of bacterial ribosomes. The macrolide antibacterial drugs have a large, complex ring structure and are part of a larger class of naturally produced secondary metabolites called polyketides, complex compounds produced in a stepwise fashion through
the repeated addition of two-carbon units by a mechanism similar to that used for fatty acid synthesis. Macrolides are broad-spectrum, bacteriostatic drugs that block elongation of proteins by inhibiting peptide bond formation between specific combinations of amino acids. The first macrolide was erythromycin. It was isolated in 1952 from
Streptomyces erythreus and prevents translocation. Semisynthetic macrolides include azithromycin and telithromycin. Compared with erythromycin, azithromycin has a broader spectrum of activity, fewer side effects, and a significantly
longer half-life (1.5 hours for erythromycin versus 68 hours for azithromycin) that allows for once-daily dosing and a short 3-day course of therapy (i.e., Zpac formulation) for most infections. Telithromycin is the first semisynthetic within the class known as ketolides. Although telithromycin shows increased potency and activity against macrolideresistant pathogens, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited its use to treatment of communityacquired pneumonia and requires the strongest “black box warning” label for the drug because of serious hepatotoxicity.

The lincosamides include the naturally produced lincomycin and semisynthetic clindamycin. Although structurally distinct from macrolides, lincosamides are similar in their mode of action to the macrolides through binding to the 50S ribosomal subunit and preventing peptide bond formation. Lincosamides are particularly active against streptococcal and staphylococcal infections.

The drug chloramphenicol represents yet another structurally distinct class antibacterials that also bind to the 50S ribosome, inhibiting peptide bond formation. Chloramphenicol, produced by Streptomyces venezuelae, was discovered in 1947; in 1949, it became the first broad-spectrum antibiotic that was approved by the FDA. Although it is a natural antibiotic, it is also easily synthesized and was the first antibacterial drug synthetically mass produced. As a result of its mass production, broad-spectrum coverage, and ability to penetrate into tissues efficiently, chloramphenicol was historically used to treat a wide range of infections, from meningitis to typhoid fever to conjunctivitis. Unfortunately, serious side effects, such as lethal gray baby syndrome, and suppression of bone marrow production, have limited its clinical role. Chloramphenicol also causes anemia in two different ways. One mechanism involves the targeting of mitochondrial ribosomes within hematopoietic stem cells, causing a reversible, dose-dependent suppression of blood cell production. Once chloramphenicol dosing is discontinued, blood cell production returns to normal. This mechanism highlights the similarity between 70S ribosomes of bacteria and the 70S ribosomes within our mitochondria. The second mechanism of anemia is idiosyncratic (i.e., the mechanism is not understood), and involves an irreversible lethal loss of blood cell production known as aplastic anemia. This mechanism of aplastic anemia is not dose dependent and can develop after therapy has stopped. Because of toxicity concerns, chloramphenicol usage in humans is now rare in the United States and is limited to severe infections unable to be treated by less toxic antibiotics. Because its side effects are much less severe in animals, it is used in veterinary medicine.

The oxazolidinones, including linezolid, are a new broad-spectrum class of synthetic protein synthesis inhibitors that bind to the 50S ribosomal subunit of both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. However, their mechanism of action seems somewhat different from that of the other 50S subunit-binding protein synthesis inhibitors already
discussed. Instead, they seem to interfere with formation of the initiation complex (association of the 50S subunit, 30S subunit, and other factors) for translation, and they prevent translocation of the growing protein from the ribosomal A site to the P site.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: