Bicarbonate Alters Bacterial Susceptibility to Antibiotics by Targeting the Proton Motive Force

ACS Infect Dis. 2018 Mar 9;4(3):382-390. doi: 10.1021/acsinfecdis.7b00194. Epub 2018 Jan 4.


The antibacterial properties of sodium bicarbonate have been known for years, yet the molecular understanding of its mechanism of action is still lacking. Utilizing chemical-chemical combinations, we first explored the effect of bicarbonate on the activity of conventional antibiotics to infer on the mechanism. Remarkably, the activity of 8 classes of antibiotics differed in the presence of this ubiquitous buffer. These interactions and a study of mechanism of action revealed that, at physiological concentrations, bicarbonate is a selective dissipater of the pH gradient of the proton motive force across the cytoplasmic membrane of both Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. Further, while components that make up innate immunity have been extensively studied, a link to bicarbonate, the dominant buffer in the extracellular fluid, has never been made. Here, we also explored the effects of bicarbonate on components of innate immunity. Although the immune response and the buffering system have distinct functions in the body, we posit there is interplay between these, as the antimicrobial properties of several components of innate immunity were enhanced by a physiological concentration of bicarbonate. Our findings implicate bicarbonate as an overlooked potentiator of host immunity in the defense against pathogens. Overall, the unique mechanism of action of bicarbonate has far-reaching and predictable effects on the activity of innate immune components and antibiotics. We conclude that bicarbonate has remarkable power as an antibiotic adjuvant and suggest that there is great potential to exploit this activity in the discovery and development of new antibacterial drugs by leveraging testing paradigms that better reflect the physiological concentration of bicarbonate.

Keywords: antibiotic activity; bicarbonate buffer system; drug discovery; innate immunity; mechanism of action; proton motive force.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bicarbonates / metabolism*
  • Drug Synergism
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Proton-Motive Force / drug effects*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Bicarbonates

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