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Bacteria make a meal of penicillin

Engineered bacteria could be used for bioremediation of antibiotic-contaminated soils

by Celia Henry Arnaud
May 7, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 19

Scheme showing proposed pathway for penicillin degradation by soil bacteria.
Researchers propose that bacteria use β-lactamases, amidases, and the phenylacetic acid pathway to subsist on β-lactam antibiotics.

Somewhere in the soil microbiome, bacteria are chowing down on penicillin and other β-lactam antibiotics. A team of researchers led by Gautam Dantas of Washington University in St. Louis provides evidence for a pathway those bacteria might use to incorporate β-lactams into the microbes’ central metabolism (Nat. Chem. Biol. 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41589-018-0052-1). After genomic and transcriptomic analysis of bacterial strains that can survive using penicillin as their sole carbon source, the researchers propose that the bacteria first cleave the β-lactam ring to produce benzylpenicilloic acid. That compound acts as a substrate for an amidase enzyme, which hydrolyzes the amide bond to release the phenylacetic acid side chain. Phenylacetic acid can be metabolized into acetyl-CoA and succinyl-CoA, which feed into the bacteria’s central metabolism. The researchers engineered a set of these penicillin-processing enzymes into Escherichia coli, creating a strain that subsists on penicillin as its sole carbon source. They propose that such engineered bacteria might be used for bioremediation of antibiotic-contaminated soils. But the researchers acknowledge that such bioremediation comes with the risk of spreading the resistance and degradation genes to other organisms.


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