Single-celled organisms must adapt their physiology to persist and propagate across a wide range of environmental conditions. The growth and division of bacterial cells depend on continuous synthesis of an essential extracellular barrier: the peptidoglycan cell wall, a polysaccharide matrix that counteracts turgor pressure and confers cell shape. Unlike many other essential processes and structures within the bacterial cell, the peptidoglycan cell wall and its synthesis machinery reside at the cell surface and are thus uniquely vulnerable to the physicochemical environment and exogenous threats. In addition to the diversity of stressors endangering cell wall integrity, defects in peptidoglycan metabolism require rapid repair in order to prevent osmotic lysis, which can occur within minutes. Here, we review recent work that illuminates mechanisms that ensure robust peptidoglycan metabolism in response to persistent and acute environmental stress. Advances in our understanding of bacterial cell wall quality control promise to inform the development and use of antimicrobial agents that target the synthesis and remodeling of this essential macromolecule. IMPORTANCE Nearly all bacteria are encased in a peptidoglycan cell wall, an essential polysaccharide structure that protects the cell from osmotic rupture and reinforces cell shape. The integrity of this protective barrier must be maintained across the diversity of environmental conditions wherein bacteria replicate. However, at the cell surface, the cell wall and its synthesis machinery face unique challenges that threaten their integrity. Directly exposed to the extracellular environment, the peptidoglycan synthesis machinery encounters dynamic and extreme physicochemical conditions, which may impair enzymatic activity and critical protein-protein interactions. Biotic and abiotic stressors—including host defenses, cell wall active antibiotics, and predatory bacteria and phage—also jeopardize peptidoglycan integrity by introducing lesions, which must be rapidly repaired to prevent cell lysis. Here, we review recently discovered mechanisms that promote robust peptidoglycan synthesis during environmental and acute stress and highlight the opportunities and challenges for the development of cell wall active therapeutics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02456-20
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Adaptation
  • Antibiotics
  • Cell wall
  • Peptidoglycan
  • Stress response


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