Here’s how mysterious last-resort antibiotics kill bacteria

To kill drug-resistant bacteria, “last-resort” antibiotics borrow a tactic from Medusa’s playbook: petrification.

New high-resolution microscope images show that a class of antibiotics called polymyxins crystallize the cell membranes of bacteria. The honeycomb-shaped crystals that form turn the microbes’ usually supple skins of fat molecules into thin brittle sheets, researchers report October 21 in Nature Communications. When the petrified membranes break, the bacteria die.

The finding was a total surprise, says Sebastian Hiller, a structural biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

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