Copper and Antibiotics: Discovery, Modes of Action, and Opportunities for Medicinal Applications

Academic Article


  • Copper is a ubiquitous element in the environment as well as living organisms, with its redox capabilities and complexation potential making it indispensable for many cellular functions. However, these same properties can be highly detrimental to prokaryotes and eukaryotes when not properly controlled, damaging many biomolecules including DNA, lipids, and proteins. To restrict free copper concentrations, all bacteria have developed mechanisms of resistance, sequestering and effluxing labile copper to minimize its deleterious effects. This weakness is actively exploited by phagocytes, which utilize a copper burst to destroy pathogens. Though administration of free copper is an unreasonable therapeutic antimicrobial itself, due to insufficient selectivity between host and pathogen, small-molecule ligands may provide an opportunity for therapeutic mimicry of the immune system. By modulating cellular entry, complex stability, resistance evasion, and target selectivity, ligand/metal coordination complexes can synergistically result in high levels of antibacterial activity. Several established therapeutic drugs, such as disulfiram and pyrithione, display remarkable copper-dependent inhibitory activity. These findings have led to development of new drug discovery techniques, using copper ions as the focal point. High-throughput screens for copper-dependent inhibitors against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus uncovered several new compounds, including a new class of inhibitors, the NNSNs. In this review, we highlight the microbial biology of copper, its antibacterial activities, and mechanisms to discover new inhibitors that synergize with copper.
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    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Dalecki AG; Crawford CL; Wolschendorf F
  • Start Page

  • 193
  • End Page

  • 260
  • Volume

  • 70