The emb operon, a gene cluster of Mycobacterium tuberculosis involved in resistance to ethambutol

Nat Med. 1997 May;3(5):567-70. doi: 10.1038/nm0597-567.


Ethambutol (EMB), a frontline antituberculous drug, targets the mycobacterial cell wall, a unique structure among prokaryotes which consists of an outer layer of mycolic acids covalently bound to peptidoglycan via the arabinogalactan. EMB inhibits the polymerization of cell wall arabinan, and results in the accumulation of the lipid carrier decaprenol phosphoarabinose, which suggests that the drug interferes with the transfer of arabinose to the cell wall acceptor. Unfortunately, resistance to EMB has been described in up to 4% of clinical isolates of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and is prevalent among isolates from patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. We used resistance to EMB as a tool to identify genes participating in the biosynthesis of the mycobacterial cell wall. This approach led to the identification of the embCAB gene cluster, recently proposed to encode for mycobacterial arabinosyl transferases. Resistance to EMB results from an accumulation of genetic events determining overexpression of the Emb protein(s), structural mutation in EmbB, or both. Further characterization of these proteins might provide information on targets for new chemotherapeutic agents and might help development of diagnostic strategies for the detection of resistant M. tuberculosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Antitubercular Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial / genetics
  • Ethambutol / pharmacology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Genes, Bacterial / genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Multigene Family / genetics
  • Mycobacterium / drug effects
  • Mycobacterium / genetics
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / drug effects*
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / enzymology
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / genetics
  • Operon / genetics*
  • Pentosyltransferases / genetics*
  • RNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid


  • Antitubercular Agents
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Ethambutol
  • Pentosyltransferases
  • arabinosyltransferase

Associated data

  • GENBANK/L78821
  • GENBANK/U46844
  • GENBANK/U66560
  • GENBANK/U68480
  • GENBANK/Z80343