Toxin-antitoxin systems in bacterial growth arrest and persistence

Nat Chem Biol. 2016 Apr;12(4):208-14. doi: 10.1038/nchembio.2044.


Bacterial persister cells constitute a subpopulation of genetically identical, metabolically slow-growing cells that are highly tolerant of antibiotics and other environmental stresses. Recent studies have demonstrated that gene loci known as toxin-antitoxin (TA) modules play a central role in the persister state. Under normal growth conditions, antitoxins potently inhibit the activities of the toxins. In contrast, under conditions of stress, the antitoxins are selectively degraded, freeing the toxins to inhibit essential cellular processes, such as DNA replication and protein translation. This inhibition results in rapid growth arrest. In this Review, we highlight recent discoveries of these multifaceted TA systems with a focus on the newly uncovered mechanisms, especially conditional cooperativity, that are used to regulate cell growth and persistence. We also discuss the potential for targeting TA systems for antimicrobial drug discovery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antitoxins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Toxins / genetics*
  • Drug Discovery
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli* / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli* / genetics
  • Escherichia coli* / growth & development
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Antitoxins
  • Bacterial Toxins