The multifaceted antibacterial mechanisms of the pioneering peptide antibiotics tyrocidine and gramicidin S

Michaela Wenzel*, Marina Rautenbach, J. Arnold Vosloo, Tjalling Siersma, Christopher H.M. Aisenbrey, Ekaterina Zaitseva, Wikus E. Laubscher, Wilma van Rensburg, Jan C. Behrends, Burkhard Bechinger, Leendert W. Hamoen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Cyclic β-sheet decapeptides from the tyrocidine group and the homologous gramicidin S were the first commercially used antibiotics, yet it remains unclear exactly how they kill bacteria. We investigated their mode of action using a bacterial cytological profiling approach. Tyrocidines form defined ion-conducting pores, induce lipid phase separation, and strongly reduce membrane fluidity, resulting in delocalization of a broad range of peripheral and integral membrane proteins. Interestingly, they also cause DNA damage and interfere with DNA-binding proteins. Despite sharing 50% sequence identity with tyrocidines, gramicidin S causes only mild lipid demixing with minor effects on membrane fluidity and permeability. Gramicidin S delocalizes peripheral membrane proteins involved in cell division and cell envelope synthesis but does not affect integral membrane proteins or DNA. Our results shed a new light on the multifaceted antibacterial mechanisms of these antibiotics and explain why resistance to them is virtually nonexistent. IMPORTANCE Cyclic β-sheet decapeptides, such as tyrocidines and gramicidin S, were among the first antibiotics in clinical application. Although they have been used for such a long time, there is virtually no resistance to them, which has led to a renewed interest in this peptide class. Both tyrocidines and gramicidin S are thought to disrupt the bacterial membrane. However, this knowledge is mainly derived from in vitro studies, and there is surprisingly little knowledge about how these long-established antibiotics kill bacteria. Our results shed new light on the antibacterial mechanism of β-sheet peptide antibiotics and explain why they are still so effective and why there is so little resistance to them.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00802-18
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2018
Externally publishedYes


Electron microscopy was performed at the VU/VUmc electron microscopy facility, supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO, middelgroot 91111009). This work was funded by an NWO Vici grant (STW-Vici 12128 to L.W.H.), the BIOPEP Peptide Fund (to M.R.), and a Protea SA-France exchange grant (to M.R. and B.B.). M.W. was supported by a postdoc stipend of the Amsterdam Infection and Immunity Institute.

FundersFunder number
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk OnderzoekSTW-Vici 12128, 91111009
Universiteit Stellenbosch


    • Antibiotics
    • Antimicrobial peptides
    • Bacterial cell biology
    • Bacterial cytological profiling
    • Cell membranes
    • Mode of action


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