Organization of the mycobacterial cell wall: a nanoscale view

Pflugers Arch. 2008 Apr;456(1):117-25. doi: 10.1007/s00424-007-0386-0. Epub 2007 Nov 28.


The biosynthesis of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis cell wall is targeted by some of the most powerful antituberculous drugs. To date, the molecular mechanisms by which these antibiotics affect the cell wall characteristics are not well understood. Here, we used atomic force microscopy - in three different modes - to probe the nanoscale surface properties of live mycobacteria and their modifications upon incubation with four antimycobacterial drugs: isoniazid, ethionamide, ethambutol, and streptomycine. Topographic imaging, combined with quantitative surface roughness analysis, demonstrated that all drugs induce a substantial increase of surface roughness to an extent that correlates with the localization of the target (i.e., synthesis of mycolic acids, arabinogalactans, or proteins). Chemical force microscopy with hydrophobic tips revealed that the structural alterations induced by isoniazid and ethambutol were correlated with a dramatic decrease of cell surface hydrophobicity, reflecting the removal of the outermost mycolic acid layer. Consistent with this finding, tapping mode imaging, combined with immunogold labeling, showed that the two drugs lead to the massive exposure of hydrophilic lipoarabinomannans at the surface. Taken together, these structural, chemical, and immunological data provide novel insight into the action mode of antimycobacterial drugs, as well as into the spatial organization of the mycobacterial cell wall.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Cell Wall / drug effects
  • Cell Wall / ultrastructure*
  • Ethambutol / pharmacology
  • Ethionamide / pharmacology
  • Isoniazid / pharmacology
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / cytology
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / drug effects
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / ultrastructure*
  • Nanotechnology
  • Streptomycin / pharmacology


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Ethambutol
  • Ethionamide
  • Isoniazid
  • Streptomycin