An unusual class of anthracyclines potentiate Gram-positive antibiotics in intrinsically resistant Gram-negative bacteria

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An orthogonal approach taken towards novel antibacterial drug discovery involves the identification of small molecules that potentiate or enhance the activity of existing antibacterial agents. This study aimed to identify natural-product rifampicin adjuvants in the intrinsically resistant organism Escherichia coli.


E. coli BW25113 was screened against 1120 actinomycete fermentation extracts in the presence of subinhibitory (2 mg/L) concentrations of rifampicin. The active molecule exhibiting the greatest rifampicin potentiation was isolated using activity-guided methods and identified using mass and NMR spectroscopy. Susceptibility testing and biochemical assays were used to determine the mechanism of antibiotic potentiation.


The anthracycline Antibiotic 301A1 was isolated from the fermentation broth of a strain of Streptomyces (WAC450); the molecule was shown to be highly synergistic with rifampicin (fractional inhibitory concentration index = 0.156) and moderately synergistic with linezolid (FIC index = 0.25) in both E. coli and Acinetobacter baumannii. Activity was associated with inhibition of efflux and the synergistic phenotype was lost when tested against E. coli harbouring mutations within the rpoB gene. Structure-activity relationship studies revealed that other anthracyclines do not synergize with rifampicin and removal of the sugar moiety of Antibiotic 301A1 abolishes activity.


Screening only a subsection of our natural product library identified a small-molecule antibiotic adjuvant capable of sensitizing Gram-negative bacteria to antibiotics to which they are ordinarily intrinsically resistant. This result demonstrates the great potential of this approach in expanding antibiotic effectiveness in the face of the growing challenge of resistance in Gram-negatives.

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