Catalase inhibition by nitric oxide potentiates hydrogen peroxide to trigger catastrophic chromosome fragmentation in Escherichia coli

Pooja Agashe, Andrei Kuzminov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2, HP) is a universal toxin that organisms deploy to kill competing or invading cells. Bactericidal action of H2O2 presents several questions. First, the lethal H2O2 concentrations in bacterial cultures are 1000x higher than, for example, those calculated for the phagosome. Second, H2O2-alone kills bacteria in cultures either by mode-one, via iron-mediated chromosomal damage, or by mode-two, via unknown targets, but the killing mode in phagosomes is unclear. Third, phagosomal H2O2 toxicity is enhanced by production of nitric oxide (NO), but in vitro studies disagree: some show NO synergy with H2O2 antimicrobial action, others instead report alleviation. To investigate this "NO paradox," we treated Escherichia coli with various concentrations of H2O2-alone or H2O2+NO, measuring survival and chromosome stability. We found that all NO concentrations make sublethal H2O2 treatments highly lethal, via triggering catastrophic chromosome fragmentation (mode-one killing). Yet, NO-alone is not lethal, potentiating H2O2 toxicity by blocking H2O2 scavenging in cultures. Catalases represent obvious targets of NO inhibition, and catalase-deficient mutants are indeed killed equally by H2O2-alone or H2O2+NO treatments, also showing similar levels of chromosome fragmentation. Interestingly, iron chelation blocks chromosome fragmentation in catalase-deficient mutants without blocking H2O2-alone lethality, indicating mode-two killing. In fact, mode-two killing of WT cells by much higher H2O2 concentrations is transiently alleviated by NO, reproducing the "NO paradox." We conclude that NO potentiates H2O2 toxicity by promoting mode-one killing (via catastrophic chromosome fragmentation) by otherwise static low H2O2 concentrations, while transiently suppressing mode-two killing by immediately lethal high H2O2 concentrations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 24 2021


  • catalases
  • double-strand DNA breaks
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • nitric oxide
  • oxidative damage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics


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