Escherichia coli Uses a Dedicated Importer and Desulfidase To Ferment Cysteine

Yidan Zhou, James A. Imlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


CyuA of Escherichia coli is an inducible desulfidase that degrades cysteine to pyruvate, ammonium, and hydrogen sulfide. Workers have conjectured that its role may be to defend bacteria against the toxic effects of cysteine. However, cyuA sits in an operon alongside cyuP, which encodes a cysteine importer that seems ill suited to protecting the cell from environmental cysteine. In this study, transport measurements established that CyuP is a cysteine-specific, high-flux importer. The concerted action of CyuP and CyuA allowed anaerobic E. coli to employ cysteine as either the sole nitrogen or the sole carbon/energy source. CyuA was essential for this function, and although other transporters can slowly bring cysteine into the cell, CyuP-proficient cells outcompeted cyuP mutants. Cells immediately consumed the ammonia and pyruvate that CyuA generated, with little or none escaping from the cell. The expression of the cyuPA operon depended upon both CyuR, a cysteine-activated transcriptional activator, and Crp. This control is consistent with its catabolic function. In fact, the cyuPA operon sits immediately downstream of the thrABCDEFG operon, which allows the analogous fermentation of serine and threonine; this arrangement suggests that this gene cluster may have moved jointly through the anaerobic biota, providing E. coli with the ability to ferment a limited set of amino acids. Interestingly, both the cyu- and thr-encoded pathways depend upon oxygen-sensitive enzymes and cannot contribute to amino acid catabolism in oxic environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Crp
  • CyuP
  • DecR
  • amino acid fermentation
  • cysteine desulfidase
  • cysteine import
  • cyuA
  • cyuR
  • yhaM
  • yhaO

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Virology
  • Microbiology


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