Widely Used Antibiotics Affect Mitochondria

From plants to mice and human cells, tetracyclines lead to mitochondrial dysfunction in model organisms.

By Anna Azvolinsky | March 12, 2015

Arabidopsis thaliana exposed to regular (left) and doxycycline-containing water (right)ECOLE POLYTECHNIQUE FEDERALE, LAUSANNE, SWITZERLANDThe tetracycline-controlled promoter system is a widely used tool to conditionally switch gene transcription on or off in the presence of the eponymous antibiotic. Adding tetracyclines to eukaryotic cells leads to altered mitochondrial genome translation and cellular respiration defects across five widely used eukaryotic model systems—Arabidopsis thaliana, Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, laboratory mice, and human cell lines—according to a study published today (March 12) in Cell Reports.

The results suggest that using this gene expression control system likely has broad confounding effects on experimental outcomes in molecular biology. And with tetracyclines accounting for 41 percent of all antibiotics sold for use on livestock in the United States in 2011, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, environmental accumulation of the drugs could have detrimental ecological outcomes.

“This tool will now have to be employed with caution and of course with extensive controls,” Jodi Nunnari, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the work, wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist.

“This is a straightforward and clear story,” said Cole Haynes, who studies mitochondrial dysfunction at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “It’s a nice job by the authors showing that tetracyclines really have mitochondrial consequences [scientists] have not thought about seriously.”

Two years ago, study coauthor Johan Auwerx, an energy metabolism researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and his colleagues observed that the tetracycline class of antibiotics, which target mitochondrial translation, led to an imbalance between mitochondrial and nuclear protein translation in both worms and mammalian cell lines. Expanding on this observation, the researchers have now shown that even low concentrations of tetracyclines can inhibit mitochondrial function and lead to changes in both mitochondrial and nuclear protein expression. Across four commonly used human cell lines, as little as 1 microgram of the drug per milliliter resulted in a decrease in cellular respiration, signaling impaired mitochondrial activity. Treatment with amoxicillin, an antibiotic that does not target protein synthesis in the mitochondria, did not lead to these effects. Further, genome-wide expression data showed global repression of mitochondrial protein synthesis in the presence of the tetracycline doxycycline.

In C. elegans and D. melanogaster, doxycycline exposure during development resulted in developmental delays as well as decreased oxygen consumption when the animals reached adulthood. However, both the doxycycline-treated worms and the fruit flies were more agile throughout their lives compared to those not exposed to the antibiotic, Auwerx and his colleagues found. This observation was consistent with the authors’ previous findings that blocking mitochondrial translation can partly prevent a decline in physical fitness with age.

A. thaliana plants grown in media containing doxyclicine exhibited delayed growth and increased expression of stress-response genes. The livers of mice whose drinking water was supplemented with doxyclycine for 14 days showed depleted energy stores and reductions in respiration, as well as shifts in mitochondrial gene expression.

That tetracyclines inhibit mitochondrial protein translation was first shown in the 1960s. But when molecular biologists began to use the tetracycline-controlled promoter system, it was thought that at small concentrations, tetracyclines would not affect protein translation in eukaryotic cells, said Auwerx.

“I’m not surprised that tetracyclines affect the status of these organisms,” wrote Nunnari. “But then again, I am a mitochondrial biologist. What surprises me is the extent of the effects and that the scientific community has not considered the off-target effects of this class of compounds in their experimental design.”

“I would certainly pause before using the tetracycline system,” said Haynes.

Given their results, the researchers cautioned against widespread tetracycline use in livestock because of the potential repercussions for neighboring plant life and human health. “This aspect of some antibiotics . . .  has been overlooked,” said study coauthor Riekelt Houtkooper, a molecular biologist who studies metabolic aging at the Laboratory Genetic Metabolic Diseases of the Academic Medical Center in the Netherlands. “There is a lot of interest in antibiotic resistance and on the effects of antibiotics on the microbiome, but the effects on mitochondria is a whole new angle.”

“Our guts contain 10 times more bacteria than cells but the mitochondria are even more abundant than the bacteria in our guts,” Houtkooper continued. “We need more studies to show how the environment is affected by antibiotics.”

Nunnari agreed. “The pervasive use of any drug class, as in the case of tetracyclines, should always raise concerns about the more global consequences,” she said. “As basic scientists, we don’t think about the global consequences of the use of this drug class enough. This [study] will raise awareness.”

N. Moullan et al., “Tetracyclines disturb mitochondrial function across eukaryotic models: a call for caution in biomedical research,” Cell Reports, doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2015.02.034, 2015. 

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Avatar of: Taxpayer


Posts: 14

March 13, 2015

Very interesting, but perhaps not surprising if mitochondria have evolved from bacteria. Such findings could be a factor in obesity, together with residual hormones in animals we eat. The whole field of environmental toxins is understudied in the U.S. relative to the amount we are spending on genomics. This could be a costly mistake that delays discovery of the causes of diseases of unknown etiology, such as Alzheimer's.

Avatar of: mlerman


Posts: 71

March 13, 2015

Obvious since the begining of time. Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

Avatar of: Dr Ichha Purak

Dr Ichha Purak

Posts: 18

March 14, 2015

Antibiotics may affect mitochondria as it possess genome and RNAs etc as that of prokaryotes and probably have evolved as cell organelle  in eukaryotic cellular organisation 

Avatar of: Hugh-F-61


Posts: 77

March 14, 2015

Oh dear, or expletives to that effect!  It is 50 years since it became clear that tetracyclin inhibited mitochondria, and that overdoses deafened humans, i.e. killed auditory nerves. Have molecular biologists lost sight of biology, or is there no time to do proper controls?

Avatar of: JtSimon


Posts: 5

March 16, 2015

Could there be a link between the increased use of antibiotics in livestock and medicine and rapid rise in obesity in the past decade? 


Avatar of: WestT1D


Posts: 1

March 16, 2015

It would be interesting to see whether the increasing incidence of Type 1 diabetes correlates with the increased use of antibiotics. General observation is that it does but the numbers would have to be verified. Once can certainly envision antibiotics first wreaking havock on the gut microbiome to allow access of foreign (viral)components,  and additionally the beta cell mitochondria to create apoptosis and beta cell death. Both insults resulting in inflammation and loss of pancreatic cell function. Speculating here but it would be good to investigate these hypotheses.

Avatar of: Vortexineer


Posts: 3

March 18, 2015

Interesting, considering an average person makes about 300 lbs of ATP per day from our mitochondrias, I wonder what the actual decrease in output would be? If it is 250 lbs of ATP synthesis our cells would be lacking the needed energy to perform its normal duties and would therefore not be able to process the circulating nutrients in the blood. Leading to hyper glycemia or maybe something elevated that is normally used in the citric acid cycle?  it is amazing that our bodies can autonomously operate on potientially a fraction of what it would like and still have happy cells. I wonder if adding Resveratrol or pterostilbene which increases the number of  Mitochondria, while decreasing free radical production, would counter some of the untoward effects of these antibiotics?

Avatar of: Hal


Posts: 2

March 23, 2015

There was another study stating quinolon family of antibiotics caused much greater and longer lasting oxidative stress than the tetra- family does.  It was more than just a plant study.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3760005/

Avatar of: Hal


Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Vortexineer made on March 18, 2015

March 23, 2015

The effects you describe are noted in fluoroquinolon antibiotics (Cipro, Levaquin, Avelox) use.  You can meet and discuss this with those wounded by this class of drugs on a Facebook page called Fluoroquinolone Toxicity Group.  It is a Closed group but just ask the moderator to join, tell them Hal sent you (over 2,000 members).

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