Demonstration of N, N-Dimethyldithiocarbamate as a Copper-Dependent Antibiotic against Multiple Upper Respiratory Tract Pathogens

Microbiol Spectr. 2021 Oct 31;9(2):e0077821. doi: 10.1128/Spectrum.00778-21. Epub 2021 Sep 1.


Transition metals are necessary cofactors and structural elements in living systems. Exposure to high concentrations of biologically important transition metals, such as zinc and copper, results in cell toxicity. At the infection site, the immune system deploys metal sorbent proteins (e.g., lactoferrin and calprotectin) to starve pathogens of necessary metals (such as iron), while phagocytes expose engulfed pathogens to high levels of other metals, such as copper and zinc. The opportunistic pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus) encounters macrophages during initial and protracted infections. The pneumococcus employs a copper export pathway, which improves colonization and persistent infection of the nasopharynx and the upper respiratory tract. Because copper is tightly regulated in the host, we instead sought to leverage the localized power of nutritional immunity by identifying small molecules with copper-dependent toxicity (CDT) through a targeted screen of compounds for antibiotic efficacy. We chose to include dithiocarbamates, based on the copper synergy observed in other organisms with 1-(diethylthiocarbamoyldisulfanyl)-N,N-diethyl-methanethioamide (tetraethylthiuram disulfide, disulfiram). We observed CDT of some dithiocarbamates in S. pneumoniae. Only N,N-dimethyldithiocarbamate (DMDC) was consistently toxic across a range of concentrations with copper both in vitro and in vivo against the pneumococcus. We also observed various degrees of CDT in vitro using DMDC in Staphylococcus aureus, Coccidioides posadasii, and Schistosoma mansoni. Collectively, we demonstrate that the compound DMDC is a potent bactericidal compound against S. pneumoniae with antimicrobial efficacy against bacterial and fungal pathogens. IMPORTANCE With the rise of antibiotic resistance, approaches that add new antimicrobials to the current repertoire are vital. Here, we investigate putative and known copper ionophores in an attempt to intoxicate bacteria and use ionophore/copper synergy, and we ultimately find success with N,N-dimethyldithiocarbamate (DMDC). We show that DMDC has in vitro efficacy in a copper-dependent manner and kills pathogens across three different kingdoms, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Coccidioides posadasii, and Schistosoma mansoni, and in vivo efficacy against S. pneumoniae. As such, dithiocarbamates represent a new potential class of antimicrobials and thus warrant further mechanistic investigation.

Keywords: Coccidioides; Schistosoma; Staphylococcus aureus; Streptococcus pneumoniae; Valley Fever; antibiotic; copper-dependent toxicity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria
  • Coccidioides
  • Coccidioidomycosis
  • Copper / toxicity*
  • Dimethyldithiocarbamate / pharmacology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Male
  • Metals
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Phagocytes / immunology
  • Respiratory System
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy*
  • Schistosoma
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Zinc / toxicity


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Dimethyldithiocarbamate
  • Metals
  • Copper
  • Zinc