Chitosan disrupts the barrier properties of the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria

Int J Food Microbiol. 2001 Dec 30;71(2-3):235-44. doi: 10.1016/s0168-1605(01)00609-2.


The mode of antimicrobial action of chitosan (polymeric beta-1,4-N-acetylglucosamine) on gram-negative bacteria was studied with special emphasis on its ability to bind to and weaken the barrier function of the outer membrane (OM). Chitosan (250 ppm) at pH 5.3 induced significant uptake of the hydrophobic probe 1-N-phenylnaphthylamine (NPN) in Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Salmonella typhimurium. The effect was reduced (E. coli, salmonellae) or abolished (P. aeruginosa) by MgCl2. No NPN uptake was observed during exposure of the salmonellae to chitosan at pH 7.2. Chitosan also sensitized P. aeruginosa and the salmonellae to the lytic effect of sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS); such sensitization was not blocked by MgCl2 and was reversible by washing chitosan-treated cells prior to SDS exposure. Chemical and electrophoretic analyses of cell-free supernatants of chitosan-treated cell suspensions showed that interaction of chitosan with E. coli and the salmonellae involved no release of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or other membrane lipids. However, chitosan rendered E. coli more sensitive to the inhibitory action of dyes and bile acids used in selective media. Highly cationic mutants of S. typhimurium were more resistant to chitosan than the parent strains. Electron microscopy showed that chitosan caused extensive cell surface alterations and covered the OM with vesicular structures. Chitosan thus appeared to bind to the outer membrane, explaining the loss of the barrier function. This property makes chitosan a potentially useful indirect antimicrobial for food protection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / drug effects
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / physiology*
  • Chitin / analogs & derivatives
  • Chitin / pharmacology*
  • Chitosan
  • Food Preservatives / pharmacology*
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / physiology*
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Microscopy, Electron


  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Food Preservatives
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Chitin
  • Chitosan