Natural and acquired macrolide resistance in mycobacteria

Curr Drug Targets Infect Disord. 2002 Dec;2(4):355-70. doi: 10.2174/1568005023342263.


The genus Mycobacterium contains two of the most important human pathogens, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium leprae, the etiologic agents of tuberculosis and leprosy, respectively. Other mycobacteria are mostly saprophytic organisms, living in soil and water, but some of them can cause opportunistic infections. The increasing incidence of tuberculosis as well as infections with non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) in AIDS patients has renewed interest in molecular mechanisms of drug resistance in these pathogens. Mycobacteria show a high degree of intrinsic resistance to most common antibiotics. For instance, species from the M. tuberculosis complex (MTC) are intrinsically resistant to macrolides. Nevertheless, some semi-synthetic macrolides as the erythromycin derivatives clarithromycin, azithromycin and most recently the ketolides, are active against NTM, particularly Mycobacterium avium, and some of them are widely used for infection treatment. However, shortly after the introduction of these new drugs, resistant strains appeared due to mutations in the macrolide target, the ribosome. The mycobacterial cell wall with its specific composition and structure is considered to be a major factor in promoting the natural resistance of mycobacteria to various antibiotics. However, to explain the difference in macrolide sensitivity between the MTC and NTM, the synergistic contribution of a specific resistance mechanism might be required, in addition to possible differences in cell wall permeability. This mini-review summarizes the current knowledge on the natural and acquired macrolide resistance in mycobacteria, gives an overview of potential mechanisms implicated in the intrinsic resistance and brings recent data concerning a macrolide resistance determinant in the MTC.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial*
  • Humans
  • Macrolides / pharmacology*
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Mutation
  • Mycobacterium avium Complex / drug effects
  • Mycobacterium avium Complex / genetics
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / drug effects
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / genetics
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Macrolides