Antibiotics are chemical compounds used to kill or inhibit the growth of infectious organisms. Originally the term antibiotic referred only to organic compounds, produced by bacteria or molds, that are toxic to other microorganisms. The term is now used loosely to include synthetic and semisynthetic organic compounds. Antibiotic refers generally to antibacterials; however, because the term is loosely defined, it is preferable to specify compounds as being antimalarials, antivirals, or antiprotozoals. All antibiotics share the property of selective toxicity: They are more toxic to an invading organism than they are to an animal or human host. Penicillin is the most well-known antibiotic and has been used to fight many infectious diseases, including syphilis, gonorrhea, tetanus, and scarlet fever. Another antibiotic, streptomycin, has been used to combat tuberculosis.
Antibiotics can be classified in several ways. The most common method classifies them according to their action against the infecting organism. Some antibiotics attack the cell wall; some disrupt the cell membrane; and the majority inhibit the synthesis of nucleic acids and proteins, the polymers that make up the bacterial cell. Another method classifies antibiotics according to which bacterial strains they affect: staphylococcus, streptococcus, or Escherichia coli, for example. Antibiotics are also classified on the basis of chemical structure, as penicillins, cephalosporins, aminoglycosides, tetracyclines, macrolides, or sulfonamides, among others.
Most antibiotics act by selectively interfering with the synthesis of one of the large-molecule constituents of the cell?the cell wall or proteins or nucleic acids. Some, however, act by disrupting the cell membrane . Some important and clinically useful drugs interfere with the synthesis of peptidoglycan, the most important component of the cell wall. These drugs include the B-lactam antibiotics, which are classified according to chemical structure into penicillins, cephalosporins, and carbapenems. All these antibiotics contain a B-lactam ring as a critical part of their chemical structure, and they inhibit synthesis of peptidoglycan, an essential part of the cell wall. They do not interfere with the synthesis of other intracellular components. The continuing buildup of materials inside the cell exerts ever greater pressure on the membrane, which is no longer properly supported by peptidoglycan. The membrane gives way, the cell contents leak out, and the bacterium dies. These antibiotics do not affect human cells because human cells do not have cell walls.
Many antibiotics operate by inhibiting the synthesis of various intracellular bacterial molecules, including DNA, RNA, ribosomes, and proteins. The synthetic sulfonamides are among the antibiotics that indirectly interfere with nucleic acid synthesis. Nucleic-acid synthesis can also be stopped by antibiotics that inhibit the enzymes that assemble these polymers?for example, DNA polymerase or RNA polymerase. Examples of such antibiotics are actinomycin, rifamicin, and rifampicin, the last two being particularly valuable in the treatment of tuberculosis. The quinolone antibiotics inhibit synthesis of an enzyme responsible for the coiling and uncoiling of the chromosome, a process necessary for DNA replication and for transcription to messenger RNA. Some antibacterials affect the assembly of messenger RNA, thus causing its genetic message to be garbled. When these faulty messages are translated, the protein products are nonfunctional. There are also other mechanisms: The tetracyclines compete with incoming transfer-RNA molecules; the aminoglycosides cause the genetic message to be misread and a defective protein to be produced; chloramphenicol prevents the linking of amino acids to the growing protein; and puromycin causes the protein chain to terminate prematurely, releasing an incomplete protein.