Riboswitches are RNA elements that control gene expression in essential metabolic pathways. Researchers in the laboratory of Ronald R. Breaker, the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale, showed that a riboswitch controlling vitamin B1 (thiamine) levels is disrupted in the presence of pyrithiamine, a toxic compound related to the vitamin.
Bacteria and fungi fail to grow in pyrithiamine and become resistant by acquiring mutations in their riboswitches. This work, in combination with the recently solved crystal structures of purine riboswitches, opens a path to the directed design of drugs targeting riboswitches for use as antibiotics.
According to the researchers, it is inevitable that bacteria will evolve and that the drugs we use to cure bacterial infections will eventually become ineffective. While it is often possible to alter existing drugs slightly, they suggest that a longer term and more attractive solution is to create entirely new drugs that target bacteria in completely new ways. This approach lengthens the useful clinical lifetime of a drug and makes it possible to tackle resistant 'superbugs' with combinations of drugs.
The analog, pyrithiamine, was synthesized decades ago to study the then new field of vitamin nutrition. It was quickly found to be toxic but the mechanism was incompletely understood. Breaker and coworkers show that pyrithiamine is metabolized and binds to the riboswitch controlling thiamine.