Doctors rely on a dwindling arsenal of drugs to fight bacterial infections as the bugs keep finding ways to survive. These "superbugs" may be brought to their knees with the discovery by Boston University biomedical engineers of a previously unknown chain of events occurring in bacteria when they are fed antibiotics.

The three classes of bactericidal antibiotics used today each target a different bacterial function: inhibiting DNA replication, blocking protein building, or halting construction of cell walls. But, BU research found the three classes more alike than anyone realized, and the commonalities may be what kills the bugs.

The researchers found a common process, or pathway, that was triggered by all three types of antibiotics, with the endpoint of the pathway being excessive free radical production. Free radicals are molecules that carry a free, or unpaired, electron like a weapon. This hidden pathway, and resultant free radical overload, can cripple or kill bacteria, and in the future might be employed to help lower antibiotic doses, increase the vulnerability of resistant bacteria to drugs, or to develop new antibiotics.

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