Protein Synthesis Inhibitors

Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Protein synthesis is essential for living cells. Medications that can stop pathogens from making proteins help get rid of infections. This lesson talks about how different types of protein synthesis inhibitors work.

Protein Synthesis

Cells can't exist without proteins. Proteins provide a ton of essential functions. They provide transportation and structure, help chemical reactions happen, and regulate the cell's activities. Proteins are made of a combination of 20 individual units called amino acids that get strung together like beads on a string.

Protein synthesis is a complex process with a bunch of different players.

  • DNA, which holds the instructions for making proteins, is transcribed into mRNA, which acts as a middleman to move the instructions around.
  • mRNA then goes to an organelle called the ribosome, which acts as a machine to join the amino acids together.
  • tRNA molecules bring amino acids to the growing protein based on the instructions provided by the mRNA.

Because there are so many steps in protein synthesis, there are a lot of ways to interfere.

Amino acids being added to growing protein at the ribosome
Protein Translation

Antibiotic Protein Synthesis Inhibitors

If proteins are so important to cells, why would we want to stop making them? In our cells, this might not be ideal, but in other cell types, this could be very helpful. Antibiotics are medicines that we can use to fight bacterial infection. Antibiotics are often derived from other microbes, like yeast, that have developed these tools to protect themselves from infection. Many types of antibiotics work by taking advantage of the differences between eukaryotic and bacterial cells to stop protein synthesis in bacteria.

Most antibiotics that inhibit protein synthesis do so by binding to the bacteria's ribosomes. This prevents the tRNA from landing and adding its amino acid onto the growing protein. Examples of antibiotics that work this way include tetracyclins, macrolides and aminoglycosides. They all have complex-sounding names, but they all work in a similar fashion.

  • Tetracyclins can be used to fight bacteria that cause tuberculosis and leprosy, Lyme disease, anthrax, plague and Chlamydia.
  • Macrolides, like erythromycin, can be used against a wide variety of bacteria. Rifampin is another antibiotic that prevents proteins from being made, but it works earlier in the protein synthesis process, preventing mRNA from being made. Rifampin can be used to keep bacteria in your body from causing meningitis, and can also treat tuberculosis.

All of these protein synthesis inhibiting antibiotics don't kill bacteria immediately, but they do help stop them from growing so the body can get rid of them. If a patient doesn't take all of their prescribed antibiotics properly, some stronger bacteria may survive. These stronger bacteria will pass on their genes, leading to antibiotic resistance. This is a major problem, as few antibiotics have been discovered and put into clinical use in the past few decades. The bacteria that causes tuberculosis, for example, has found ways to survive around almost all the antibiotics we have available. Scary!

Antifungal Protein Synthesis Inhibitors

Bacteria are relatively easy to target with protein synthesis inhibitors. As stated above, bacteria and animal cells have very different ribosomes. Fungi, on the other hand, are much more similar to animal cells, because they are all eukaryotic. This makes it more complicated to find treatments that won't inhibit our own cells as well.

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