The Alkylating Agents


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(a) Alkylating agents replace hydrogen atoms with alkyl groups. Here, guanine is alkylated, resulting in its hydrogen bonding with thymine, instead of cytosine. (b) The chemical structures of several alkylating agents.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

The alkylating agents are a group of strong disinfecting chemicals that act by replacing a hydrogen atom within a molecule with an alkyl group (CnH2n+1), thereby inactivating enzymes and nucleic acids. The alkylating agent formaldehyde (CH2OH) is commonly used in solution at a concentration of 37% (known as formalin) or as a gaseous disinfectant and biocide. It is a strong, broad-spectrum disinfectant and biocide that has the ability to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and endospores, leading to sterilization at low temperatures, which is sometimes a convenient alternative to the more labor-intensive heat sterilization methods. It also cross-links proteins and has been widely used as a chemical fixative. Because of this, it is used for the storage of tissue specimens and as an embalming fluid. It also has been used to inactivate infectious agents in vaccine preparation. Formaldehyde is very irritating to living tissues and is also carcinogenic; therefore, it is not used as an antiseptic.

Glutaraldehyde is structurally similar to formaldehyde but has two reactive aldehyde groups, allowing it to act more quickly than formaldehyde. It is commonly used as a 2% solution for sterilization and is marketed under the brand name Cidex. It is used to disinfect a variety of surfaces and surgical and medical equipment. However, similar to formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde irritates the skin and is not used as an antiseptic.

A new type of disinfectant gaining popularity for the disinfection of medical equipment is o-phthalaldehyde (OPA), which is found in some newer formulations of Cidex and similar products, replacing glutaraldehyde. oPhthalaldehyde also has two reactive aldehyde groups, but they are linked by an aromatic bridge. o-Phthalaldehyde is thought to work similarly to glutaraldehyde and formaldehyde, but is much less irritating to skin and nasal passages, produces a minimal odor, does not require processing before use, and is more effective against mycobacteria.

Ethylene oxide is a type of alkylating agent that is used for gaseous sterilization. It is highly penetrating and can sterilize items within plastic bags such as catheters, disposable items in laboratories and clinical settings (like packaged Petri dishes), and other pieces of equipment. Ethylene oxide exposure is a form of cold sterilization, making
it useful for the sterilization of heat-sensitive items. Great care needs to be taken with the use of ethylene oxide, however; it is carcinogenic, like the other alkylating agents, and is also highly explosive. With careful use and proper aeration of the products after treatment, ethylene oxide is highly effective, and ethylene oxide sterilizers are commonly found in medical settings for sterilizing packaged materials.

β-Propionolactone is an alkylating agent with a different chemical structure than the others already discussed. Like other alkylating agents, β-propionolactone binds to DNA, thereby inactivating it. It is a clear liquid with a strong odor and has the ability to kill endospores. As such, it has been used in either liquid form or as a vapor for the sterilization of medical instruments and tissue grafts, and it is a common component of vaccines, used to maintain their sterility. It has also been used for the sterilization of nutrient broth, as well as blood plasma, milk, and water. It is quickly metabolized by animals and humans to lactic acid. It is also an irritant, however, and may lead to permanent damage of the eyes, kidneys, or liver. Additionally, it has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals; thus, precautions are necessary to minimize human exposure to β-propionolactone.


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