Penicillin Resistance: How Penicillin-Resistant Bacteria Avoid Destruction

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  • 0:05 Drugs vs. Bacteria
  • 1:43 Mechanisms of…
  • 2:02 Penicillin Resistance:…
  • 3:16 Penicillin Resistance:…
  • 4:05 Penicillin Resistance:…
  • 5:08 Resisting Penicillin…
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Lesson Transcript
Katy Metzler

Katy teaches biology at the college level and did her Ph.D. work on infectious diseases and immunology.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

In the battle between humans and bacteria, antibiotics are one of our most important weapons. But, bacteria can fight back! In this lesson, learn about the strategies that some bacteria use in order to avoid being killed by penicillin.

Drugs vs. Bacteria

Imagine you're outside playing soccer and you get a cut on your leg. You put a bandage on it and wait for it to get better. But, within a few days, you notice that the skin around the cut is getting red, swollen and painful to the touch, so you decide to get a doctor to look at it.

The doctor suspects that you have a staph infection, an infection caused by bacteria in the genus Staphylococcus. These bacteria often live on our skin without causing any symptoms, but if they get into a wound, they can cause infections. Your doctor decides to give you antibiotics. But, let's hope she chooses the right one...

Let's take a closer look at the infection on your leg. If you took a sample and looked at it under the microscope, you'd see lots of tiny bacteria growing and dividing and your immune cells trying to gobble them up. You'd think those little critters wouldn't have a chance of surviving, especially when antibiotics are there to help your immune system get things under control. But, don't be fooled; bacteria have lots of tricks up their tiny little sleeves.

If we imagine an infection as a battle between humans and bacteria, antibiotics would be one of our most important weapons. But, those sneaky little bacteria have evolved ways to survive even in the face of antibiotics. There are many antibiotics available today, but almost as soon as they begin to be used in the clinic, resistant bacteria are found. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at an example of antibiotic resistance, penicillin resistance, which is when bacteria can avoid being killed by penicillin. We'll explore how this works and how drug developers try to fight back.

Mechanisms of Penicillin Resistance

Remember that penicillin kills bacteria by weakening their cell walls. Penicillin specifically targets the enzymes that cross-link the peptidoglycan layer in the cell wall. Since the cell wall is so important for bacteria, how could a bacterium possibly survive penicillin treatment? Well, there are a few different ways, actually.

Penicillin Resistance: Restrict Transport

One strategy that some Gram-negative bacteria have evolved is to restrict transport of penicillin molecules into the cell wall. This first strategy is analogous to reinforcing the walls of a fortress so that invading armies can't get in. Remember that penicillin can diffuse easily into Gram-positive bacteria because they don't have an outer membrane. However, penicillin and other drugs must enter Gram-negative bacteria through channels called porins on their outer membranes.

This is why some types of penicillin are ineffective against Gram-negative bacteria; they can't get through the porins. However, there are related drugs called 'broad-spectrum penicillins' that can enter the bacteria through these porins. Amoxicillin is one of these broad-spectrum penicillins.

Some Gram-negative bacteria, such as E. coli, which can cause various kinds of illnesses, including bladder infections and food poisoning, are resistant to the broad-spectrum penicillins. These resistant strains can have mutations that make them produce fewer porins or that make the openings of the porins smaller. In either case, less antibiotic can get through to the peptidoglycan layer, where it needs to be to do its job.

Penicillin Resistance: Modify Target Molecules

Another impressive penicillin resistance mechanism is to modify penicillin's target molecules, the enzymes that cross-link peptidoglycan. These target molecules are called penicillin-binding proteins because, well, they bind to penicillin. Some bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause illnesses like bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections, use this second mechanism to resist penicillin. Resistant strains often have mutated penicillin-binding proteins that penicillin can't bind to anymore.

Let's imagine this concept in a larger size. Say there's a targeted missile that specifically destroys the mortar that holds stone walls together. This second penicillin-resistance strategy would be like designing a whole new type of mortar that the missiles can't recognize and then using this mortar to build all new walls.

Penicillin Resistance: Beta Lactamases

The third mechanism of penicillin resistance is really important. It's the one that a lot of biologists think about when they hear the phrase 'penicillin-resistant.' Bacteria that use this third mechanism secrete enzymes that break penicillin down so that it's ineffective. This mechanism would be analogous to releasing a substance that would dismantle missiles in midair before they can even hit anything. Pretty impressive.

So, how does this third strategy work? First, we need to look at the structure of the penicillin molecule. Penicillin is a beta-lactam antibiotic, meaning it's a member of a class of antibiotics that all have a beta-lactam ring in their structure. The beta-lactam ring is essential for penicillin's activity.

Bacteria that can destroy penicillin do so by secreting enzymes called beta-lactamases. These enzymes cleave the beta-lactam ring of penicillin so that the drug becomes inactive. Many bacteria, such as the Staphylococcus that might be in that cut on your leg, express beta-lactamases, so penicillin doesn't work to treat these bacteria.

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Additional Activities

The Story of Penicillin Resistance

Students will use creative writing to compose a fictional story explaining penicillin resistance and how penicillin-resistant bacteria avoid destruction. They may need to conduct extra research to learn more about different forms of penicillin-resistant bacteria. The story should include:

  • Definitions of major terms, including penicillin resistance, porins, penicillin-binding proteins, beta-lactam antibiotic, and beta lactamases.
  • A story line that is fictional, but gives accurate information about the topic.
  • A story that is appropriate for middle school to high school-aged readers to learn about penicillin resistant bacteria in a biology class.

The story does not need to have a specific number of words/pages, but should cover the topic well enough that the reader will understand all the information.


Here are a few ideas for settings and general storylines to consider:

  • A detective story in which the detective is trying to hunt down a penicillin-resistant bacteria 'bad guy'.
  • A story set in a high school environment in which the characters are all bacteria, with some being penicillin-resistant and others not. The penicillin could be represented by the principal (or authority figures) of the school, while the bacteria are the students.
  • A first-person story told from the perspective of a penicillin-resistant bacteria working to stay alive in an organism that is systematically trying to kill it.

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