The outer membrane of mycobacteria presents an effective permeability barrier for many antibiotics. Transport pathways across this membrane are unknown for most drugs. Here, we examined which antibiotics utilize the porin pathway across the outer membrane of the model organism Mycobacterium smegmatis. Deletion of the porins MspA and MspC drastically increased the resistance of M. smegmatis ML10 to beta-lactam antibiotics, while its beta-lactamase activity remained unchanged. These results are consistent with the ninefold-reduced outer membrane permeability of the M. smegmatis porin mutants for cephaloridine and strongly indicate that beta-lactam antibiotics rely on the porin pathway. The porin mutant ML10 accumulated less chloramphenicol and norfloxacin and was less susceptible to these antibiotics than wild-type M. smegmatis. These results demonstrated that small and hydrophilic antibiotics use the Msp porins for entering the cell. In contrast to norfloxacin, the hydrophobic moxifloxacin was 32-fold more effective in inhibiting the growth of M. smegmatis, presumably because it was able to diffuse through the lipid membrane. Structural models indicated that erythromycin, kanamycin, and vancomycin are too large to move through the MspA channel. This study presents the first experimental evidence that hydrophilic fluoroquinolones and chloramphenicol diffuse through porins in mycobacteria. Thus, mutations resulting in less efficient porins or lower porin expression levels are likely to represent a mechanism for the opportunistic pathogens M. avium, M. chelonae, and M. fortuitum, which have Msp-like porins, to acquire resistance to fluoroquinolones.
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