Tetracycline Antibiotic: Uses & Side Effects

Instructor: Catherine Konopka

Catherine has taught various college biology courses for 5 years at both 2-year and 4-year institutions. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different antibiotics and why you're prescribed different antibiotics for different types of infections? In this lesson, you will learn when tetracycline is prescribed and potential side effects.

Tetracycline Is Broad Spectrum

In the late 1940s, a bacteria called Streptomyces was found exuding a substance that killed all the other bacteria around it. That substance, called aureomycin, was purified and studied. Although not safe for humans to ingest, medicinal chemists were able to alter it into a similar-looking compound to fight bacterial infections in humans. The name of that compound was tetracycline. Since the development of tetracycline, pharmaceutical companies have synthesized related compounds that have slightly different characteristics. The structure of tetracycline and its relatives have four ('tetra') rings ('cycline') attached together like a caterpillar. Attached to the rings are various other atoms that give each related compound its unique function.

The structure of tetracycline
The structure of tetracycline

We sometimes forget that there are millions of different types, or species, of bacteria. Just think of how many species of animals there are! That doesn't even start to compare to the different species of bacteria. Tetracycline is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, which means that it is effective against many types of bacteria. This is because tetracycline inhibits, or halts, protein synthesis. All cells need to make new proteins to survive, grow and reproduce, even tiny bacteria. As long as the drug can get inside bacteria and interact with their ribosomes (protein factories), it will cause the bacteria to stop growing and dividing. In this way, tetracycline is bacteriostatic - it causes bacteria to stop growing and making new bacteria. It's like the bacteria become 'static.'


In theory, tetracycline should be able to treat any bacterial infection because all bacterial cells need to make protein. But some bacteria have features that allow them to evade tetracycline, so the drug can't be used to fight all infections. Tetracycline is effective against most gram-positive, gram-negative, aerobic (uses oxygen) and anaerobic (cannot survive in oxygen) bacteria. Some bacterial species have an inherent resistance to tetracycline, meaning that tetracycline doesn't stop their growth. One of these is Streptomyces itself. This makes sense, because a bacterium wouldn't make a chemical that is toxic to itself! Unfortunately, in past years, there have also been species that have acquired the genetic capability to resist tetracycline. This has been caused by the overuse or misuse of tetracycline. Sadly, tetracycline cannot be used to treat some bacterial infections, when it previously could.

Today, tetracycline is used to treat infections caused by:

  • Various skin bacterial species that cause acne
  • Borrelia burgdorferi (causes Lyme disease)
  • Rickettsia rickettsii (causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever)
  • Coxiella burnetii (causes Q fever)
  • Chlamydia psittaci (causes psittacosis)
  • Chlamydia trachomatis (causes lymphogranuloma venereum)
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae (causes a type of pneumonia)
  • Neisseria meningitidis (causes bacterial meningitis)

Tetracycline has also been used in biomedical research. It has been used to measure bone growth for many years. There is even current research using tetracycline to control mosquito populations and treat leukemia (a type of blood cancer) by genetic means. Who knew tetracycline would have so many uses almost 70 years after its discovery?

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