Composition and Structure of Peptidoglycan

Peptidoglycan is a unique and essential component of bacterial cell walls. It is a polymer made up of sugars and amino acids that provides strength and rigidity to the cell wall, giving bacteria their characteristic shape and protection.

The structure of peptidoglycan consists of long chains of alternating N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetylmuramic acid (NAM) sugars. These sugar chains are cross-linked by short peptides, forming a mesh-like network that surrounds the bacterial cell.

The cross-linking of peptidoglycan is achieved through the action of enzymes called transpeptidases or penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs). These enzymes catalyze the formation of peptide bonds between the amino acid side chains of adjacent sugar chains, creating a sturdy and stable cell wall structure.

Peptidoglycan serves several important functions in bacterial cells. Firstly, it provides structural integrity and protection against osmotic pressure. The rigid peptidoglycan layer prevents the cell from bursting or collapsing under different environmental conditions.

Additionally, peptidoglycan plays a role in bacterial cell division. During cell growth and division, new peptidoglycan is synthesized and incorporated into the cell wall, allowing the bacterium to expand and replicate.

Peptidoglycan is also a target for antibiotics, such as penicillin and cephalosporins. These antibiotics inhibit the activity of the transpeptidase enzymes, preventing proper cross-linking of the peptidoglycan and weakening the bacterial cell wall. This leads to cell lysis and the eventual death of the bacteria.

Understanding the structure and function of peptidoglycan is crucial in the field of microbiology, as it provides insights into the unique characteristics of bacteria and their vulnerability to antibiotics.


  • 1. Vollmer, W., & Bertsche, U. (2008). Murein (peptidoglycan) structure, architecture and biosynthesis in Escherichia coli. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Biomembranes, 1778(9), 1714-1734. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbamem.2007.06.007
  • 2. Goffin, C., & Ghuysen, J. M. (2002). Multimodular Penicillin-Binding Proteins: An Enigmatic Family of Orthologs and Paralogs. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 66(1), 21-39. DOI: 10.1128/MMBR.66.1.21-39.2002


Peptidoglycan is a unique component of bacterial cell walls that provides structural support and protection against osmotic pressure. It is composed of a complex network of sugars and peptides, forming a mesh-like structure. In this article, we will explore the composition and structure of peptidoglycan.

Composition of Peptidoglycan

1. Sugars

Peptidoglycan is primarily composed of two types of sugars: N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetylmuramic acid (NAM). These sugars are connected and form a repeating disaccharide unit called NAG-NAM.

2. Peptides

The sugars in peptidoglycan are cross-linked by short peptide chains. The peptides are made up of amino acids such as L-alanine, D-alanine, L-glutamic acid, and meso-diaminopimelic acid (DAP). The composition and arrangement of these peptides can vary among different bacterial species.

Structure of Peptidoglycan

1. Glycan Chains

The NAG-NAM disaccharide units form long chains called glycan chains. These chains are interconnected by peptide bridges to create a lattice-like structure. The glycan chains provide the main structural framework of peptidoglycan.

2. Cross-Linking

The glycan chains are cross-linked by the peptide chains. The cross-linking occurs between the D-alanine of one peptide and the DAP of another peptide, forming a peptide bridge. This cross-linking contributes to the strength and stability of the peptidoglycan structure.

3. Alternating Layers

In Gram-positive bacteria, the peptidoglycan layer is thick and forms the outermost layer of the cell wall. It is composed of multiple layers of glycan chains cross-linked by peptides. In contrast, Gram-negative bacteria have a thinner layer of peptidoglycan sandwiched between the inner and outer membranes.

4. Teichoic Acids

In Gram-positive bacteria, peptidoglycan is often associated with teichoic acids. These are negatively charged polymers that extend from the peptidoglycan layer into the surrounding environment. Teichoic acids play a role in cell wall stability and may also be involved in bacterial adherence and pathogenicity.

Function of Peptidoglycan

Structural Integrity

Peptidoglycan provides rigidity and strength to the bacterial cell wall, maintaining the cell’s shape and protecting it from osmotic pressure. This is particularly important for bacteria living in hypotonic environments, where the surrounding medium has a lower concentration of solutes than the bacterial cytoplasm.

Shape Determination

The structure of the peptidoglycan layer helps determine the shape of the bacterial cell, whether it be cocci (spherical), bacilli (rod-shaped), or spirilla (spiral-shaped).

Protective Barrier

Peptidoglycan acts as a protective barrier, preventing the entry of harmful substances, including certain antibiotics and enzymes. However, it also allows the passage of nutrients necessary for bacterial survival.

Types of Bacterial Cell Walls

The composition and thickness of the peptidoglycan layer vary between Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, leading to differences in their cell wall structures.

Gram-Positive Bacteria

Gram-positive bacteria have a thick peptidoglycan layer, which can be up to 40 layers thick. This thick layer is responsible for retaining the crystal violet stain used in the Gram staining procedure, giving these bacteria a purple color under a microscope. In addition to peptidoglycan, Gram-positive cell walls contain teichoic acids, which contribute to the wall’s rigidity and charge.

Gram-Negative Bacteria

Gram-negative bacteria have a thinner peptidoglycan layer, typically consisting of only a few layers. This thin layer is located between the inner cytoplasmic membrane and an outer membrane. The outer membrane contains lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which provide an additional barrier to harmful substances. Gram-negative bacteria do not retain the crystal violet stain and appear pink or red after Gram staining.

Peptidoglycan and Antibiotics

Peptidoglycan is a crucial target for many antibiotics, which inhibit its synthesis and compromise bacterial cell wall integrity, leading to cell lysis and death.

β-Lactam Antibiotics

β-lactam antibiotics, such as penicillin and cephalosporins, inhibit the enzymes involved in the final stages of peptidoglycan synthesis. These enzymes, known as penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs), are responsible for cross-linking the peptide chains. Inhibition of PBPs prevents the formation of a functional cell wall, resulting in bacterial cell death.

Glycopeptide Antibiotics

Glycopeptide antibiotics, such as vancomycin, bind directly to the D-alanyl-D-alanine terminus of the peptide chains, blocking the cross-linking process. This prevents the formation of a stable peptidoglycan network, leading to cell wall weakening and bacterial death.

Clinical Significance

Antibiotic Resistance

The rise of antibiotic resistance poses a significant challenge to treating bacterial infections. Bacteria can develop resistance mechanisms, such as producing β-lactamase enzymes that degrade β-lactam antibiotics or altering PBPs to reduce antibiotic binding. Understanding peptidoglycan synthesis and its inhibition is crucial for developing new antibiotics and combating resistance.

Diagnostic Tools

Peptidoglycan and its components are used in diagnostic assays to identify bacterial infections. For example, the presence of peptidoglycan fragments in bodily fluids can indicate bacterial infection, aiding in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.


Peptidoglycan is a key component of bacterial cell walls, providing structural support and protection. It is composed of NAG-NAM disaccharide units connected by peptide bridges. The glycan chains form a lattice-like structure, which is cross-linked by peptides. Understanding the composition and structure of peptidoglycan is essential for studying bacterial cell walls and developing antimicrobial strategies that target this vital component.FAQs about Peptidoglycan

What is peptidoglycan?

Peptidoglycan, also known as murein, is a complex molecule that forms the primary structural component of the cell walls of bacteria. It is a crucial element that provides shape, rigidity, and protection to bacterial cells.

What is the structure of peptidoglycan?

Peptidoglycan is composed of the following key structural elements:

Glycan strands:

  • These are long, linear polysaccharide chains made up of alternating N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) and N-acetylmuramic acid (MurNAc) residues.

Peptide cross-links:

  • Short peptide chains (usually tetrapeptides) are attached to the MurNAc residues and cross-link the glycan strands, forming a mesh-like structure.

How is peptidoglycan synthesized?

The synthesis of peptidoglycan involves a multi-step process that occurs both inside and outside the bacterial cell:

Intracellular synthesis:

  • Precursor molecules are assembled within the bacterial cytoplasm, including the glycan strands and peptide chains.

Extracellular assembly:

  • The precursor molecules are transported to the cell surface and incorporated into the existing peptidoglycan layer, expanding and strengthening the cell wall.

What is the function of peptidoglycan?

The main functions of peptidoglycan in bacteria include:

  • 1. Providing structural integrity:

– Peptidoglycan gives the bacterial cell wall its characteristic shape and rigidity, protecting the cell from osmotic lysis.

  • 2. Maintaining cell shape:

– The cross-linked peptidoglycan network helps maintain the specific shape of different bacterial species, such as cocci, rods, or spirals.

  • 3. Protecting against environmental stresses:

– The cell wall, reinforced by peptidoglycan, shields the bacterial cell from various environmental challenges, such as changes in osmotic pressure.

  • 4. Serving as a target for antibiotics:

– Many antibiotics, such as penicillins and cephalosporins, disrupt the synthesis or structure of peptidoglycan, leading to the death or inhibition of bacterial cells.

How does peptidoglycan differ in Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria?

The peptidoglycan layer in Gram-positive bacteria is thicker and more extensive, whereas in Gram-negative bacteria, it is thinner and located between the inner and outer membranes. This difference in peptidoglycan structure is the basis for the Gram staining procedure, which is used to classify bacteria.