Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The evolutionary rate of antibacterial drug targets

Arkadiusz Gladki1, Szymon Kaczanowski1, Pawel Szczesny12 and Piotr Zielenkiewicz12*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences, Pawinskiego 5A, Warsaw, Poland

2 Department of Plant Molecular Biology, Institute of Experimental Plant Biology and Biotechnology, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Miecznikowa 1

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BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-36

Published: 1 February 2013



One of the major issues in the fight against infectious diseases is the notable increase in multiple drug resistance in pathogenic species. For that reason, newly acquired high-throughput data on virulent microbial agents attract the attention of many researchers seeking potential new drug targets. Many approaches have been used to evaluate proteins from infectious pathogens, including, but not limited to, similarity analysis, reverse docking, statistical 3D structure analysis, machine learning, topological properties of interaction networks or a combination of the aforementioned methods. From a biological perspective, most essential proteins (knockout lethal for bacteria) or highly conserved proteins (broad spectrum activity) are potential drug targets. Ribosomal proteins comprise such an example. Many of them are well-known drug targets in bacteria. It is intuitive that we should learn from nature how to design good drugs. Firstly, known antibiotics are mainly originating from natural products of microorganisms targeting other microorganisms. Secondly, paleontological data suggests that antibiotics have been used by microorganisms for million years. Thus, we have hypothesized that good drug targets are evolutionary constrained and are subject of evolutionary selection. This means that mutations in such proteins are deleterious and removed by selection, which makes them less susceptible to random development of resistance. Analysis of the speed of evolution seems to be good approach to test this hypothesis.


In this study we show that pN/pS ratio of genes coding for known drug targets is significantly lower than the genome average and also lower than that for essential genes identified by experimental methods. Similar results are observed in the case of dN/dS analysis. Both analyzes suggest that drug targets tend to evolve slowly and that the rate of evolution is a better predictor of drugability than essentiality.


Evolutionary rate can be used to score and find potential drug targets. The results presented here may become a useful addition to a repertoire of drug target prediction methods. As a proof of concept, we analyzed GO enrichment among the slowest evolving genes. These may become the starting point in the search for antibiotics with a novel mechanism.