Polymyxins, the last-resort antibiotics: Mode of action, resistance emergence, and potential solutions

J Biosci. 2021;46(3):85. doi: 10.1007/s12038-021-00209-8.


Infections caused by multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacterial pathogens are a leading cause of mortality and morbidity across the world. Indiscriminate use of broad-spectrum antibiotics has seriously affected this situation. With the diminishing discovery of novel antibiotics, new treatment methods are urgently required to combat MDR pathogens. Polymyxins, the cationic lipopeptide antibiotics, discovered more than half a century ago, are considered to be the last-line of antibiotics available at the moment. This antibiotic shows a great bactericidal effect against Gram-negative bacteria. Polymyxins primarily target the bacterial membrane and disrupt them, causing lethality. Because of their membrane interacting mode of action, polymyxins cause nephrotoxicity and neurotoxicity in humans, limiting their usability. However, recent modifications in their chemical structure have been able to reduce the toxic effects. The development of better dosing regimens has also helped in getting better clinical outcomes in the infections caused by MDR pathogens. Since the mid1990s the use of polymyxins has increased manifold in clinical settings, resulting in the emergence of polymyxin-resistant strains. The risk posed by the polymyxin-resistant nosocomial pathogens such as the Enterobacteriaceae group, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Acinetobacter baumannii, etc. is very serious considering these pathogens are resistant to almost all available antibacterial drugs. In this review article, the mode of action of the polymyxins and the genetic regulatory mechanism responsible for the emergence of resistance are discussed. Specifically, this review aims to update our current understanding in the field and suggest possible solutions that can be pursued for future antibiotic development. As polymyxins primarily target the bacterial membranes, resistance to polymyxins arises primarily by the modification of the lipopolysaccharides (LPS) in the outer membrane (OM). The LPS modification pathways are largely regulated by the bacterial two-component signal transduction (TCS) systems. Therefore, targeting or modulating the TCS signalling mechanisms can be pursued as an alternative to treat the infections caused by polymyxin-resistant MDR pathogens. In this review article, this aspect is also highlighted.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial*
  • Humans
  • Polymyxins / pharmacology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Polymyxins