The structure of free cysteine makes it vulnerable to oxidation by molecular oxygen; consequently, organisms that live in oxic habitats have acquired the ability to import cystine as a sulfur source. We show that cystine imported into Escherichia coli can transfer disulfide bonds to cytoplasmic proteins. To minimize this problem, the imported cystine is rapidly reduced. However, this conversion of cystine to cysteine precludes product inhibition of the importer, so cystine import continues into cells that are already sated with cysteine. The burgeoning cysteine pool is itself hazardous, as cysteine promotes the formation of reactive oxygen species, triggers sulfide production and competitively inhibits a key enzyme in the isoleucine biosynthetic pathway. The Lrp transcription factor senses the excess cysteine and induces AlaE, an export protein that pumps cysteine back out of the cell until transcriptional controls succeed in lowering the amount of the importer. While it lasts, the overall phenomenon roughly doubles the NADPH demand of the cell. It comprises another example of the incompatibility of the reduced cytoplasms of microbes with the oxic world in which they dwell. It also reveals one natural source of cytoplasmic disulfide stress and sheds light on a role for broad-spectrum amino acid exporters.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology