Escherichia coli tRNA contains four naturally occurring nucleosides modified with sulfur. Cysteine is the intracellular sulfur source for each of these modified bases. We previously found that the iscS gene, a member of the nifS cysteine desulfurase gene family, is required for 4-thiouridine biosynthesis in E. coli. Since IscS does not bind tRNA, its role is the mobilization and distribution of sulfur to enzymes that catalyze the sulfur insertion steps. In addition to iscS, E. coli contains two other nifS homologs, csdA and csdB, each of which has cysteine desulfurase activity and could potentially donate sulfur for thionucleoside biosynthesis. Double csdA csdB and iscS csdA mutants were prepared or obtained, and all mutants were analyzed for thionucleoside content. It was found that unfractionated tRNA isolated from the iscS mutant strain contained <5% of the level of sulfur found in the parent strain. High-pressure liquid chromatography analysis of tRNA nuclease digests from the mutant strain grown in the presence of [(35)S]cysteine showed that only a small fraction of 2-thiocytidine was present, while the other thionucleosides were absent when cells were isolated during log phase. As expected, digests from the iscS mutant strain contained 6-N-dimethylallyl adenosine (i(6)A) in place of 6-N-dimethylallyl-2-methylthioadenosine and 5-methylaminomethyl uridine (mnm(5)U) instead of 5-methylaminomethyl-2-thiouridine. Prolonged growth of the iscS and iscS csdA mutant strains revealed a gradual increase in levels of 2-thiocytidine and 6-N-dimethylallyl-2-methylthioadenosine with extended incubation (>24 h), while the thiouridines remained absent. This may be due to a residual level of Fe-S cluster biosynthesis in iscS deletion strains. An overall scheme for thionucleoside biosynthesis in E. coli is discussed.