Growth stimulation of intestinal commensal Escherichia coli by catecholamines: a possible contributory factor in trauma-induced sepsis

Shock. 2002 Nov;18(5):465-70. doi: 10.1097/00024382-200211000-00014.


Trauma is well recognized to result in the immediate and sustained release of stress-related neurochemicals such as the catecholamine norepinephrine. Past work has shown that in addition to their ability to function as neurotransmitters, catecholamines can also directly stimulate the growth of a number of pathogenic bacteria. The development of trauma-associated sepsis has often been linked to the ability of otherwise normal commensal bacteria to invade and penetrate the gut mucosal barrier. Therefore, the aim of our study was to examine whether catecholamines could also stimulate the growth of commensal Escherichia coli strains of the type present in the intestinal tract at the time of a traumatic event. Herein we report that the growth of a range of non-pathogenic isolates of E. coli of human and environmental origin was significantly increased in the presence of catecholamines. A primary mechanism by which catecholamines increase bacterial growth was shown to be iron removal from lactoferrin and transferrin and subsequent acquisition by bacteria. The 3,4-dihydroxybenzoyl (catechol) structure of the catecholamines was further demonstrated to be critical to iron acquisition. The synthetic catecholamine inotropes dobutamine and isoprenaline, as well as norepinephrine metabolites that retained the catechol structure were also active, whereas norepinephrine metabolites in which the catechol moiety had been modified were not. A role for catecholamine-mediated bacterial iron supply in the pathophysiology of gut-derived sepsis due to trauma is proposed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Catecholamines / metabolism
  • Catecholamines / pharmacology*
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development*
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Intestines / microbiology*
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Norepinephrine / pharmacology
  • Sepsis / etiology*
  • Sepsis / metabolism
  • Sepsis / microbiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / complications*
  • Wounds and Injuries / metabolism


  • Catecholamines
  • Iron
  • Norepinephrine