Thymineless death in Escherichia coli is unaffected by chromosomal replication complexity

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Thymineless death (TLD) is a rapid loss of viability of unclear mechanism in cultures of thyA mutants starved for thymine/thymidine (T starvation). It is accepted that T starvation repeatedly breaks replication forks, while recombinational repair restores them, but when the resulting futile breakage-repair cycle affects the small replication bubbles at oriC, the origin is degraded, killing the cell. Indeed, cells with increased chromosomal replication complexity (CRC), expressed as an elevated origin/terminus (ori/ter) ratio, die more extensively during TLD. Here we tested this logic by elevating the CRC in Escherichia coli thyA mutants before T starvation, anticipating exaggerated TLD. Unexpectedly, TLD remained unaffected by a CRC increase to either the natural limit (ori/ter ratio, ~6) or the functional limit (ori/ter ratio, ~16). Moreover, when we forced the CRC over the functional limit (ori/ter ratio, ~30), TLD lessened. Thus, prior overinitiation does not sensitize cells to TLD. In contradiction with the published results, even blocking new replication initiations by the dnaA(Ts) defect at 42°C fails to prevent TLD. Using the thyA dnaA(Ts) mutant in a new T starvation protocol that excludes new initiations, we show that at 42°C, the same degree of TLD still occurs when chromosomes are demonstrably nonreplicating. Remarkably, 80% of the chromosomal DNA in these nonreplicating T-starved cells is still lost, by an unclear mechanism. IMPORTANCE Thymineless death kills cells of any type and is used in anticancer and antimicrobial treatments. We tested the idea that the more replication forks there are in the chromosome during growth, the more extensive the resulting thymineless death. We varied the number of replication forks in the Escherichia coli chromosome, as measured by the origin-to-terminus ratio, ranging it from the normal 2 to 60, and even completely eliminated replication forks in the nonreplicating chromosomes (ori/ter ratio = 1). Unexpectedly, we found that thymineless death is unaffected by the intensity of replication or by its complete absence; we also found that even nonreplicating chromosomes still disappear during thymine starvation. We conclude that thymineless death can kill E. coli independently of chromosomal replication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00797-18
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2019


  • Chromosomal replication complexity
  • Chromosome degradation
  • DnaA(Ts)
  • Replication forks
  • Replication initiation
  • Thymineless death

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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