Beta-Lactam Antibiotics: Mechanism of Action, Resistance

By Acharya Tankeshwar •  Updated: 07/04/21 •  5 min read

Beta-lactam antibiotics are those that contain 4-member, nitrogen-containing, beta-lactam ring at the core of their structure. This ring mimics the shape of the terminal D-Ala-D-Ala peptide sequence that serves as the substrate for cell wall transpeptidases. At present, there are four major beta-lactam subgroups.

Molecular structure of common beta-lactam antibiotics
Molecular structure of common beta-lactam antibiotics
Beta-lactam subgroups Examples
Penicillins Penicillin, Ampicillin, Piperacillin
Cephalosporins Cefazolin, Cefotaxime, Ceftriaxone, Ceftazidime, Cefepime
Monobactams Aztreonam
Carbapenems Imipenem, Meropenem

Mechanism of Action of Beta-Lactam Antibiotics

The beta-lactam ring is key to the mode of action of these drugs that target and inhibit cell wall synthesis by binding the enzymes involved in the synthesis. These enzymes are anchored in the cell membrane and as a group is referred to as penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs). Bacterial species may contain between 4-6 different types of PBPs. The PBPs involved in cell wall cross-linking (i.e.,transpeptidases) are often the most critical for survival.

The 4-member ring of beta-lactam antibiotics gives these compounds a three-dimensional shape that mimics the D-Ala-D-Ala peptide terminus that serves as the natural substrate for transpeptidase activity during cell wall peptidoglycan synthesis. Tight binding of these beta-lactam drugs to the transpeptidase active site inhibits cell wall synthesis. Death results from osmotic instability caused by faulty cell wall synthesis, or the binding of the beta-lactam to PBP may trigger a series of events that lead to autolysis and death of the cell.

Mechanism of action of beta-lactam antibiotics
Mechanism of action of beta-lactam antibiotics

Beta-lactam agents are active against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria but effectiveness varies owing to structural differences in cell-wall structure (e.g., the outer membrane present in gram-negative but not gram-positive bacteria) and PBP content.

Resistance mechanisms against Beta-Lactams Antibiotics

Three pathways play an important role to confer resistance to beta-lactams. They are; enzymatic destruction of the antibiotics, altered antibiotic targets, or decreased uptake of the drug.


Resistance pathway Specific mechanism Examples
Enzymatic destruction of antibiotics β-lactamase enzymes destroy β-lactam ring so the antibiotic cannot bind to penicillin-binding protein (PBP) and interfere with cell wall synthesis Staphylococcal resistance to penicillin. Resistance of Enterobacteriaceae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa to several penicillins, cephalosporins, and aztreonam.
Altered target Mutational changes in original PBPs or acquisition of different PBPs that do not bind β-lactams sufficiently to inhibit cell wall synthesis Staphylococcal resistance to methicillin and other available β-lactams. Penicillin and cephalosporin resistance in Streptococcus pneumoniae and viridans streptococci.
Decreased uptake Porin channels (through which β-lactams cross the outer membrane to reach PBP of gram-negative bacteria) change in number or character so that β-lactam uptake is substantially diminished. Pseudomonas aeruginosa resistance to imipenem.

Enzyme destruction of the antibiotics

Hydrolysis of penicillins & cephalosporin antibiotics by beta-lactamase
Hydrolysis of penicillins & cephalosporin antibiotics by β-lactamase

Destruction of beta-lactams by beta-lactamase enzyme-producing bacteria is by far the most important method of resistance. Beta-lactamases open the beta-lactam ring and the altered structure of the drug can no longer bind to PBPs and is no longer to inhibit cell wall synthesis. But not all β-lactams are susceptible to hydrolysis by every β-lactamase. For example, staphylococcal beta-lactamase can readily hydrolyze penicillin and penicillin derivative but fails to hydrolyze many cephalosporins and imipenem.

Do you know?

Both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria produce β-lactamase. β-lactamases produced by gram-positive bacteria are secreted into the surrounding environment but that of gram-negative bacteria remains in the periplasmic space.

Altered antibiotic targets

The organisms change or acquire a gene that code for altered PBPs. β-lactams lack sufficient affinity for the altered PBP, thus can not prevent their function (i.e. cell wall synthesis continues even in the presence of antibiotics. For example, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) developed resistance to methicillin and all other β-lactams using this mechanism.

β-lactam resistance mechanisms of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
Image source (Bailey & Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology)

Decreased uptake of the drug

Decreased uptake of the drug contributes significantly to β-lactam resistance in gram-negative bacteria. This happens because of the changes in the number, or characteristics of the outer membrane porins (through which β-lactams reach to inner peptidoglycan layer of gram-negative bacteria). E.g. Pseudomonas aeruginosa resistance to imipenem.

Tackling resistance to Beta-Lactam Antibiotics?

  1. Protecting beta-lactam ring from beta-lactamases by molecular alterations of beta-lactam rig. For example, methicillin and oxacillin which are close molecular derivatives of penicillin are resistant to staphylococcal β-lactamase.
  2. Combining beta-lactamase inhibitors and beta-lactam with antimicrobial activity. Beta-lactam combination compromised of a β-lactam with antimicrobial activity (e.g., ampicillin, amoxicillin, piperacillin) and a β-lactam without antimicrobial activity but is capable of binding and inhibiting β-lactamases (e.g., sulbactam, clavulanate, tazobactam). The β-lactamase inhibitor avidly and irreversibly binds to the β-lactamase and renders the enzyme incapable of hydrolysis, thus allowing another β-lactam (β-lactamase susceptible beta-lactam) to exert its antimicrobial effect. Examples of these beta-lactam combinations include
    1. ampicillin/sulbactam
    2. amoxicillin/clavulanate and,
    3. piperacillin/tazobactam.
      Such combinations are only effective against organisms that produce β-lactamases that are bound by the inhibitor; they have little effect on the resistance that is mediated by altered PBPs.
  3. Challenging the bacteria with antimicrobial having a different mechanism of action. For example use of vancomycin (non-beta-lactam agent) for MRSA.

References and further reading

Acharya Tankeshwar

Hello, thank you for visiting my blog. I am Tankeshwar Acharya. Blogging is my passion. As an asst. professor, I am teaching microbiology and immunology to medical and nursing students at PAHS, Nepal. I have been working as a microbiologist at Patan hospital for more than 10 years.

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