Activating alternative transport modes in a multidrug resistance efflux pump to confer chemical susceptibility

Nat Commun. 2022 Dec 10;13(1):7655. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-35410-2.


Small multidrug resistance (SMR) transporters contribute to antibiotic resistance through proton-coupled efflux of toxic compounds. Previous biophysical studies of the E. coli SMR transporter EmrE suggest that it should also be able to perform proton/toxin symport or uniport, leading to toxin susceptibility rather than resistance in vivo. Here we show EmrE does confer susceptibility to several previously uncharacterized small-molecule substrates in E. coli, including harmane. In vitro electrophysiology assays demonstrate that harmane binding triggers uncoupled proton flux through EmrE. Assays in E. coli are consistent with EmrE-mediated dissipation of the transmembrane pH gradient as the mechanism underlying the in vivo phenotype of harmane susceptibility. Furthermore, checkerboard assays show this alternative EmrE transport mode can synergize with some existing antibiotics, such as kanamycin. These results demonstrate that it is possible to not just inhibit multidrug efflux, but to activate alternative transport modes detrimental to bacteria, suggesting a strategy to address antibiotic resistance.

MeSH terms

  • Antiporters / chemistry
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple
  • Escherichia coli Proteins* / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli* / metabolism
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Protons


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Antiporters
  • Protons
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • EmrE protein, E coli