Reduced flavins promote oxidative DNA damage in non-respiring Escherichia coli by delivering electrons to intracellular free iron

Anh N. Woodmansee, James A. Imlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When cells are exposed to external H2O2, the H2O2 rapidly diffuses inside and oxidizes ferrous iron, thereby forming hydroxyl radicals that damage DNA. Thus the process of oxidative DNA damage requires only H2O2, free iron, and an as-yet unidentified electron donor that reduces ferric iron to the ferrous state. Previous work showed that H2O2 kills Escherichia coli especially rapidly when respiration is inhibited either by cyanide or by genetic defects in respiratory enzymes. In this study we established that these respiratory blocks accelerate the rate of DNA damage. The respiratory blocks did not substantially affect the amounts of intracellular free iron or H2O2, indicating that that they accelerated damage because they increased the availability of the electron donor. The goal of this work was to identify that donor. As expected, the respiratory inhibitors caused a large increase in the amount of intracellular NADH. However, NADH itself was a poor reductant of free iron in vitro. This suggests that in non-respiring cells electrons are transferred from NADH to another carrier that directly reduces the iron. Genetic manipulations of the amounts of intracellular glutathione, NADPH, α-ketoacids, ferredoxin, and thioredoxin indicated that none of these was the direct electron donor. However, cells were protected from cyanide-stimulated DNA damage if they lacked flavin reductase, an enzyme that transfers electrons from NADH to free FAD. The Km value of this enzyme for NADH is much higher than the usual intracellular NADH concentration, which explains why its flux increased when NADH levels rose during respiratory inhibition. Flavins that were reduced by purified flavin reductase rapidly transferred electrons to free iron and drove a DNA-damaging Fenton system in vitro. Thus the rate of oxidative DNA damage can be limited by the rate at which electron donors reduce free iron, and reduced flavins become the predominant donors in E. coli when respiration is blocked. It remains unclear whether flavins or other reductants drive Fenton chemistry in respiring cells.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34055-34066
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number37
StatePublished - Sep 13 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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