High levels of intracellular cysteine promote oxidative DNA damage by driving the Fenton reaction

Sunny Park, James A. Imlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Escherichia coli is generally resistant to H2O2, with >75% of cells surviving a 3-min challenge with 2.5 mM H2O2. However, when cells were cultured with poor sulfur sources and then exposed to cystine, they transiently exhibited a greatly increased susceptibility to H2O2, with <1% surviving the challenge. Cell death was due to an unusually rapid rate of DNA damage, as indicated by their filamentation, a high rate of mutation among the survivors, and DNA lesions by a direct assay. Cell-permeable iron chelators eliminated sensitivity, indicating that intracellular free iron mediated the conversion of H2O2 into a hydroxyl radical, the direct effector of DNA damage. The cystine treatment caused a temporary loss of cysteine homeostasis, with intracellular pools increasing about eightfold. In vitro analysis demonstrated that cysteine reduces ferric iron with exceptional speed. This action permits free iron to redox cycle rapidly in the presence of H2O2, thereby augmenting the rate at which hydroxyl radicals are formed. During routine growth, cells maintain small cysteine pools, and cysteine is not a major contributor to DNA damage. Thus, the homeostatic control of cysteine levels is important in conferring resistance to oxidants. More generally, this study provides a new example of a situation in which the vulnerability of cells to oxidative DNA damage is strongly affected by their physiological state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1942-1950
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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