Tetracyclines function as dual-action light-activated antibiotics

PLoS One. 2018 May 9;13(5):e0196485. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0196485. eCollection 2018.


Antimicrobial photodynamic inactivation (aPDI) employs photosensitizing dyes activated by visible light to produce reactive oxygen species. aPDI is independent of the antibiotic resistance status of the target cells, and is thought unlikely to produce resistance itself. Among many PS that have been investigated, tetracyclines occupy a unique niche. They are potentially dual-action compounds that can both kill bacteria under illumination, and prevent bacterial regrowth by inhibiting ribosomes. Tetracycline antibiotics are regarded as bacteriostatic rather than bactericidal. Doxycycline (DOTC) is excited best by UVA light (365 nm) while demeclocycline (DMCT) can be efficiently activated by blue light (415 nm) as well as UVA. Both compounds were able to eradicate Gram-positive (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and Gram-negative (Escherichia coli) bacteria (>6 log(10) steps of killing) at concentrations (10-50μM) and fluences (10-20J/cm2). In contrast to methylene blue, MB plus red light, tetracyclines photoinactivated bacteria in rich growth medium. When ~3 logs of bacteria were killed with DMCT/DOTC+light and the surviving cells were added to growth medium, further bacterial killing was observed, while the same experiment with MB allowed complete regrowth. MIC studies were carried out either in the dark or exposed to 0.5mW/cm2 blue light. Up to three extra steps (8-fold) increased antibiotic activity was found with light compared to dark, with MRSA and tetracycline-resistant strains of E. coli. Tetracyclines can accumulate in bacterial ribosomes, where they could be photoactivated with blue/UVA light producing microbial killing via ROS generation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Light
  • Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus / drug effects
  • Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus / metabolism
  • Methylene Blue / pharmacology
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests / methods
  • Photochemotherapy / methods
  • Photosensitizing Agents / pharmacology
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Ribosomes / drug effects
  • Tetracyclines / pharmacology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Photosensitizing Agents
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Tetracyclines
  • Methylene Blue