A beta-lactam (β-lactam) ring is a four-membered lactam. (A lactam is a cyclic amide.) It is named as such because the nitrogen atom is attached to the β-carbon atom relative to the carbonyl. The simplest β-lactam possible is 2-azetidinone.
The β-lactam ring is part of the core structure of several antibiotic families, the principal ones being the penicillins, cephalosporins, carbapenems, and monobactams, which are, therefore, also called β-lactam antibiotics. Nearly all of these antibiotics work by inhibiting bacterial cell wall biosynthesis. This has a lethal effect on bacteria, although any given bacteria population will typically contain a subgroup that is resistant to β-lactam antibiotics. Bacterial resistance occurs as a result of the expression of one of many genes for the production of β-lactamases, a class of enzymes that break open the β-lactam ring. More than 1,800 different β-lactamase enzymes have been documented in various species of bacteria. These enzymes vary widely in their chemical structure and catalytic efficiencies. When bacterial populations have these resistant subgroups, treatment with β-lactam can result in the resistant strain becoming more prevalent and therefore more virulent. β-lactam derived antibiotics can be considered as one of the most important antibiotic classes but prone to clinical resistance. β-lactam exhibits its antibiotic properties by imitating the naturally occurring d-Ala-d-Ala substrate for the group of enzymes known as penicillin-binding proteins (PBP), which have as function to cross-link the peptidoglycan part of the cell wall of the bacteria.
The first synthetic β-lactam was prepared by Hermann Staudinger in 1907 by reaction of the Schiff base of aniline and benzaldehyde with diphenylketene in a [2+2] cycloaddition (Ph indicates a phenyl functional group):
The Breckpot synthesis:
- The synthesis of substituted β-lactams from the cyclization of beta amino acid esters using the Grignard reagent.
An efficient catalytic synthetic strategy towards beta‐lactams involving “in situ” generation of ketenes and subsequent trapping with imines was reported by the group of de Bruin. Carbonylation of carbene radical intermediates using the cheap and highly active cobalt(II) tetramethyltetraazaannulene catalyst [Co(MeTAA)] provided a convenient one‐pot synthetic protocol towards trans-selective beta lactams.
Due to ring strain, β-lactams are more readily hydrolyzed than linear amides or larger lactams. This strain is further increased by fusion to a second ring, as found in most β-lactam antibiotics. This trend is due to the amide character of the β-lactam being reduced by the aplanarity of the system. The nitrogen atom of an ideal amide is sp2-hybridized due to resonance, and sp2-hybridized atoms have trigonal planar bond geometry. As a pyramidal bond geometry is forced upon the nitrogen atom by the ring strain, the resonance of the amide bond is reduced, and the carbonyl becomes more ketone-like. Nobel laureate Robert Burns Woodward described a parameter h as a measure of the height of the trigonal pyramid defined by the nitrogen (as the apex) and its three adjacent atoms. h corresponds to the strength of the β-lactam bond with lower numbers (more planar; more like ideal amides) being stronger and less reactive. Monobactams have h values between 0.05 and 0.10 angstroms (Å). Cephems have h values in of 0.20–0.25 Å. Penams have values in the range 0.40–0.50 Å, while carbapenems and clavams have values of 0.50–0.60 Å, being the most reactive of the β-lactams toward hydrolysis.
A new study has suggested that β-lactams can undergo ring-opening polymerization to form amide bonds, to become nylon-3 polymers. The backbones of these polymers are identical to peptides, which offer them biofunctionality. These nylon-3 polymers can either mimic host defense peptides or act as signals to stimulate 3T3 stem cell function.
Antiproliferative agents that target tubulin with β-lactams in their structure have also been reported.
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