β-Lactamases, the major resistance determinant for β-lactam antibiotics in Gram-negative bacteria, are ancient enzymes whose origins can be traced back millions of years ago. These well-studied enzymes, currently numbering almost 2,800 unique proteins, initially emerged from environmental sources, most likely to protect a producing bacterium from attack by naturally occurring β-lactams. Their ancestors were presumably penicillin-binding proteins that share sequence homology with β-lactamases possessing an active-site serine. Metallo-β-lactamases also exist, with one or two catalytically functional zinc ions. Although penicillinases in Gram-positive bacteria were reported shortly after penicillin was introduced clinically, transmissible β-lactamases that could hydrolyze recently approved cephalosporins, monobactams, and carbapenems later became important in Gram-negative pathogens. Nomenclature is based on one of two major systems. Originally, functional classifications were used, based on substrate and inhibitor profiles. A later scheme classifies β-lactamases according to amino acid sequences, resulting in class A, B, C, and D enzymes. A more recent nomenclature combines the molecular and biochemical classifications into 17 functional groups that describe most β-lactamases. Some of the most problematic enzymes in the clinical community include extended-spectrum β-lactamases (ESBLs) and the serine and metallo-carbapenemases, all of which are at least partially addressed with new β-lactamase inhibitor combinations. New enzyme variants continue to be described, partly because of the ease of obtaining sequence data from whole-genome sequencing studies. Often, these new enzymes are devoid of any phenotypic descriptions, making it more difficult for clinicians and antibiotic researchers to address new challenges that may be posed by unusual β-lactamases.
Keywords: ESBL; MBL; carbapenemase; cephalosporinase; penicillinase; β-lactam; β-lactamase.
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