Given that mitochondria are evolutionarily closely related to bacteria, and antibiotics kill bacteria, why don't antibiotics also kill mitochondria?

  • $\begingroup$ Just found this interesting information from the wikipedia article about ribosomes: "Even though mitochondria possess ribosomes similar to the bacterial ones, mitochondria are not affected by these antibiotics because they are surrounded by a double membrane that does not easily admit these antibiotics into the organelle" $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 31, 2013 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ And so how do they get into bacteria? $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jun 11, 2016 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ I think many bacteria only have one membrane instead of the two on mitochondria. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ Gram-positive bacteria have no outer membrane, but gram-negative bacteria (from which mitochondria are thought to derive) have a double-memberane. Gram-negative bacteria are susceptible to aminoglycosides, so I am afraid that your explanation (and the first statement in the accepted answer) is inadequate. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 9:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think this answer by David should provide further insight. Macrolides do have an effect on protozoan plastids. biology.stackexchange.com/a/48004/20449 $\endgroup$
    – Polisetty
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 11:55

1 Answer 1


The short answer is, as you found, that mitochondria are wrapped in a double membrane and are thus harder to penetrate with antibiotics.

The long answer is some of them do. Good antibiotics target structures widely found on and conserved in bacteria that are not found in human bodies. Some antibiotics are a little less specific and can indeed interact with other molecules. The allergy to penicillin, for example, is caused by the immune system reacting to a "novel" protein formed when penicillin binds to the surface of red blood cells. Some antibiotics can indeed harm mitochondria, but we tend not to use those and in fact wouldn't even call most of them antibiotics since we wouldn't use them because of their harmful effects. Here is a very recent report looking at some of the anti-mitochondrial effects of some antibiotics. To quote from the abstract:

We show that clinically relevant doses of bactericidal antibiotics—quinolones, aminoglycosides, and β-lactams—cause mitochondrial dysfunction and ROS [reactive oxygen species] overproduction in mammalian cells. We demonstrate that these bactericidal antibiotic–induced effects lead to oxidative damage to DNA, proteins, and membrane lipids.

  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing the article. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2013 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ Also note the fluoroquinolone group of antibiotics (Cipro, Levo, etc) are very good at damaging mitochondrial DNA, causing long term, sometimes permanent, debilitating effects. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8913349 $\endgroup$
    – Andy Ray
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 0:09

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