Microbial infectious diseases continue to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. It has been estimated that
microbial species comprise about 60% of the Earth's biomass. This, together with the fact that their genetic, metabolic and physiological
diversity is extraordinary, makes them a major threat to the health and development of populations across the world. Widespread antibiotic
resistance, the emergence of new pathogens in addition to the resurgence of old ones, and the lack of effective new therapeutics exacerbate
the problems. Thus, the need to discover and develop new antimicrobial agents is critical to improve mankind's future health.
Plant secondary metabolites (PSMs) offer particular promise in this sense. Plant Kingdom could be considered a rich source of the most
diverse structures (e.g. there are more than 12,000 known alkaloids, more than 8,000 phenolic compounds and over 25,000 different terpenoids),
many of which were proven to possess strong antimicrobial properties (e.g. thymol, eurabienol, etc.). In many instances, PSMs
can be easily isolated from the plant matrix, either in pure state or in the form of mixtures of chemically related compounds. What is also
important is that the development of bacterial resistance toward natural plant products (that are generally regarded as eco-friendly) has
been thus far documented in a very limited number of cases (e.g. for reserpine). Having all of the mentioned advantages of PSMs as potential
antimicrobials in mind, a major question arises: why is it that there are still no commercially available or commonly used antibiotics
of plant origin? This review tries to give a critical answer to this question by considering potential mechanisms of antimicrobial action
of PSMs (inhibition of cell wall or protein synthesis, inducing leakage from the cells by tampering with the function of the membranes,
interfering with intermediary metabolisms or DNA/RNA synthesis/function), as well as their physical and chemical properties (e.g.
hydrophilicity/lipophilicity, chemical stability). To address the possible synergistic/antagonistic effects between PSMs and with standard
antibiotics, special attention has been given to the antimicrobial activity of PSM-mixtures (e.g. essential oils, plant extracts). Moreover,
possible ways of overcoming some of PSMs molecular limitations in respect to their usage as potential antibiotics were also discussed
(e.g. derivatization that would enable fine tuning of certain molecular characteristics).