A switch in surface polymer biogenesis triggers growth-phase-dependent and antibiotic-induced bacteriolysis

Elife. 2019 Apr 9;8:e44912. doi: 10.7554/eLife.44912.


Penicillin and related antibiotics disrupt cell wall synthesis to induce bacteriolysis. Lysis in response to these drugs requires the activity of cell wall hydrolases called autolysins, but how penicillins misactivate these deadly enzymes has long remained unclear. Here, we show that alterations in surface polymers called teichoic acids (TAs) play a key role in penicillin-induced lysis of the Gram-positive pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae (Sp). We find that during exponential growth, Sp cells primarily produce lipid-anchored TAs called lipoteichoic acids (LTAs) that bind and sequester the major autolysin LytA. However, penicillin-treatment or prolonged stationary phase growth triggers the degradation of a key LTA synthase, causing a switch to the production of wall-anchored TAs (WTAs). This change allows LytA to associate with and degrade its cell wall substrate, thus promoting osmotic lysis. Similar changes in surface polymer assembly may underlie the mechanism of antibiotic- and/or growth phase-induced lysis for other important Gram-positive pathogens.

Keywords: S. pneumoniae; antibiotics; cell wall; infectious disease; microbiology; peptidoglycan; teichoic acid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteriolysis / drug effects*
  • Biosynthetic Pathways / drug effects*
  • Penicillins / pharmacology*
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae / drug effects*
  • Teichoic Acids / biosynthesis*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Penicillins
  • Teichoic Acids