Ceragenins are a family of synthetic amphipathic molecules designed to mimic the properties of naturally occurring cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs). Although ceragenins have potent antimicrobial activity, whether their mode of action is similar to that of CAMPs has remained elusive. Here, we reported the results of a comparative study of the bacterial responses to two well-studied CAMPs, LL37 and colistin, and two ceragenins with related structures, CSA13 and CSA131. Using transcriptomic and proteomic analyses, we found that Escherichia coli responded similarly to both CAMPs and ceragenins by inducing a Cpx envelope stress response. However, whereas E. coli exposed to CAMPs increased expression of genes involved in colanic acid biosynthesis, bacteria exposed to ceragenins specifically modulated functions related to phosphate transport, indicating distinct mechanisms of action between these two classes of molecules. Although traditional genetic approaches failed to identify genes that confer high-level resistance to ceragenins, using a Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats interference (CRISPRi) approach we identified E. coli essential genes that when knocked down modify sensitivity to these molecules. Comparison of the essential gene-antibiotic interactions for each of the CAMPs and ceragenins identified both overlapping and distinct dependencies for their antimicrobial activities. Overall, this study indicated that, while some bacterial responses to ceragenins overlap those induced by naturally occurring CAMPs, these synthetic molecules target the bacterial envelope using a distinctive mode of action. IMPORTANCE The development of novel antibiotics is essential because the current arsenal of antimicrobials will soon be ineffective due to the widespread occurrence of antibiotic resistance. The development of naturally occurring cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) for therapeutics to combat antibiotic resistance has been hampered by high production costs and protease sensitivity, among other factors. The ceragenins are a family of synthetic CAMP mimics that kill a broad spectrum of bacterial species but are less expensive to produce, resistant to proteolytic degradation, and seemingly resistant to the development of high-level resistance. Determining how ceragenins function may identify new essential biological pathways of bacteria that are less prone to the development of resistance and will further our understanding of the design principles for maximizing the effects of synthetic CAMPs.
Keywords: Antibiotics; CSA; Gram-negative; Gram-positive; mycobacteria.