Resistance against cell wall-active antimicrobial peptides in bacteria is often mediated by transporters. In low GC-content Gram-positive bacteria, a common type of such transporters are BceAB-like systems, which frequently provide high-level resistance against peptide antibiotics that target intermediates of the lipid II cycle of cell wall synthesis. How a transporter can offer protection from drugs that are active on the cell surface, however, has presented researchers with a conundrum. Multiple theories have been discussed, ranging from removal of the peptides from the membrane, internalisation of the drug for degradation, to removal of the cellular target rather than the drug itself. To resolve this much-debated question, we here investigated the mode-of-action of the transporter BceAB of Bacillus subtilis. We show that it does not inactivate or import its substrate antibiotic bacitracin. Moreover, we present evidence that the critical factor driving transport activity is not the drug itself, but instead the concentration of drug-target complexes in the cell. Our results, together with previously reported findings, lead us to propose that BceAB-type transporters act by transiently freeing lipid II cycle intermediates from the inhibitory grip of antimicrobial peptides, and thus provide resistance through target protection of cell wall synthesis. Target protection has so far only been reported for resistance against antibiotics with intracellular targets, such as the ribosome. However, this mechanism offers a plausible explanation for the use of transporters as resistance determinants against cell wall-active antibiotics in Gram-positive bacteria where cell wall synthesis lacks the additional protection of an outer membrane.
Kobras, C. M., Piepenbreier, H., Emenegger, J., Sim, A., Fritz, G., & Gebhard, S. (2020). BceAB-type antibiotic resistance transporters appear to act by target protection of cell wall synthesis. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 64(3), [e02241-19]. https://doi.org/10.1128/AAC.02241-19