The development of microbial resistance to practically all currently used antimicrobial agents has spurred efforts to develop new antibiotics and to identify novel targets in bacterial cells. This review summarizes the evidence for inhibition of bacterial ribosomal subunit formation as a target for many antibiotics distinct from their well-known inhibition of translation. Features of a model to explain this activity are explored. Results are presented to show the accumulation of both 30S and 50S ribosomal subunit precursors in antibiotic inhibited cells. These precursors have been characterized and are shown to bind radio-labeled drugs. Pulse and chase labeling studies have revealed the slower rates of subunit synthesis in drug treated cells compared with uninhibited controls. Resynthesis of subunits after antibiotic removal precedes recovery of control protein synthesis capacity, consistent with the model presented. Also certain mutant strains defective in different ribonuclease activities are more susceptible to antibiotic inhibition of assembly as predicted. Results indicating the equivalence of assembly inhibition and translational inhibition are described. Lastly, the identification of a 50S subunit precursor particle as a substrate for rRNA methyltransferase activity is shown. The weight of evidence presented clearly indicates that ribosomal antibiotics have a second target in cells. Inhibition of cell growth and subsequent cell death results from the activity of these antibiotics on the combined targets. The possibility of designing assembly specific inhibitors is discussed.
Keywords: Ribosomes, ribosomal antibiotics, translation, subunit assembly
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