Research Article

Opposing reactions in coenzyme A metabolism sensitize Mycobacterium tuberculosis to enzyme inhibition

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Science  01 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6426, eaau8959
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8959

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A wrench in the gears of life

Tuberculosis is a global health crisis that threatens to become worse as resistance to existing drugs emerges. Identifying ideal targets for drug development requires knowledge of weak points in biochemical pathways that are specific for the pathogen but are absent in hosts. Ballinger et al. identified a small molecule that inhibits the enzyme phosphopantetheinyl transferase (PptT), which is crucial for biosynthesis of mycobacterial structural and virulence lipids (see the Perspective by Mizrahi and Warner). Treatment resulted in selective killing of the bacteria in vitro and in a mouse model. The target pathways were made sensitive to PptT inhibition by a second enzyme, phosphopantetheine hydrolase, whose activity opposes that of the transferase.

Science, this issue p. eaau8959; see also p. 457

Structured Abstract


Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the leading global cause of lethal infection in humans and accounts for the largest number of drug-resistant infections by a single bacterial pathogen. Resistance is particularly high against the most widely prescribed tuberculosis (TB) drug, isoniazid. Isoniazid blocks synthesis of mycolates, ultralong-chain fatty acids that provide structure to the waxy coat that surrounds Mtb cells and are incorporated into some of its virulence lipids. There is currently no known method to block the synthesis of both mycolates and nonmycolate-containing virulence lipids of Mtb at a single point of control. One such control point is phosphopantetheinyl transferase (PptT). PptT transfers 4′-phosphopantetheine (Ppt) from coenzyme A (CoA) to acyl carrier proteins (ACPs) that synthesize the lipids critical to Mtb structural integrity and virulence.


TB drug discovery often begins with whole-cell, high-throughput screens that yield compounds that kill Mtb by unknown means. Selection of Mtb mutants resistant to these compounds can indicate candidate targets of the active compound, but experimental validation is required to confirm the functionally relevant target, which is often an enzyme. A suitable target must be essential in vivo, such that its inhibition precludes development of TB in animal models, but also “vulnerable,” meaning that a pharmacologically attainable level of inhibition should be lethal to Mtb within a patient. The inhibitor should act only on Mtb, and resistance should be rare.


Screening a chemical library revealed an amidino-urea compound called “8918” that kills Mtb, including drug-resistant clinical isolates. 8918 inhibits Mtb in mice and spares other bacteria, yeast, and mammalian cells.

Rare Mtb mutants resistant to 8918 bore a point mutation in the PptT gene rv2794c, altering an amino acid residue overlying the Ppt-binding pocket of PptT. When Mtb carried the mutant allele as an extra copy of rv2794c, the Mtb was protected from 8918. 8918 inhibited recombinant PptT, albeit noncompetitively and incompletely. The impact of 8918 on the Mtb metabolome and lipids was consistent with inhibition of PptT in the intact cell. A crystal structure of the PptT-8918 complex at 1.8-Å resolution confirmed that 8918 binds within the Ppt binding pocket, adjacent to the phosphoadenosine phosphate portion of CoA. Intact CoA remained in the PptT-8918 complex, but the Ppt arm was displaced, decreasing but not abolishing PptT’s catalytic activity. Strains of Mtb producing reduced amounts of PptT became hypersensitive to 8918.

It was puzzling that even partial inhibition of PptT killed Mtb. We observed that mutants with disruption of rv2795c, a gene encoding a hypothetical protein, were also highly resistant to 8918. Recombinant Rv2795c protein hydrolyzed Ppt from a mycolate-building holo-ACP that is a substrate for PptT. The action of this Ppt hydrolase (PptH) resembled that of nonhomologous enzymes called ACP hydrolases that remove Ppt from ACPs in vitro but whose physiological function is unknown.


We identified a small molecule that kills Mtb by inhibiting PptT, demonstrating that a key enzyme in CoA metabolism is a viable target for TB drug development. Even partial inhibition of PptT is toxic to Mtb, likely because PptH synergizes with the inhibitor by undoing the PptT reaction. PptT and PptH are co-regulated by translation from the same operon, and thus Mtb cannot respond to inhibition of PptT by making more PptT without also generating more PptH. The joint functioning of PptT and PptH suggests that Mtb closely regulates the activation of ACPs. The transcriptional co-regulation and constitutive function of both members of the PptT-PptH couple suggests that a posttranslational signal that impairs PptT more than PptH could allow Mtb to rapidly reverse a prior commitment to synthesis of its metabolically most costly lipids.

The enzymes PptT and PptH have been found to perform opposing reactions in Mtb lipid metabolism, an essential process demonstrated to be a target for drug development.

PptT transfers 4′-phosphopanthetheine (Ppt) from CoA to apo-acyl carrier proteins (Apo-ACP) in Mtb, generating holo-ACPs that help synthesize structural and virulence lipids. Compound 8918 binds to the Ppt binding pocket of PptT, displacing the Ppt arm of CoA and partially inhibiting this enzyme. The Ppt hydrolase PptH can release Ppt, regenerating apo-ACP and thus sensitizing Mtb cells to inhibition of PptT.


Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the leading infectious cause of death in humans. Synthesis of lipids critical for Mtb’s cell wall and virulence depends on phosphopantetheinyl transferase (PptT), an enzyme that transfers 4′-phosphopantetheine (Ppt) from coenzyme A (CoA) to diverse acyl carrier proteins. We identified a compound that kills Mtb by binding and partially inhibiting PptT. Killing of Mtb by the compound is potentiated by another enzyme encoded in the same operon, Ppt hydrolase (PptH), that undoes the PptT reaction. Thus, loss-of-function mutants of PptH displayed antimicrobial resistance. Our PptT-inhibitor cocrystal structure may aid further development of antimycobacterial agents against this long-sought target. The opposing reactions of PptT and PptH uncover a regulatory pathway in CoA physiology.

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