Treatment with oxidizing agents damages the inner membrane of spores of Bacillus subtilis and sensitizes spores to subsequent stress

J Appl Microbiol. 2004;97(4):838-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.2004.02370.x.


Aims: To determine if treatment of Bacillus subtilis spores with a variety of oxidizing agents causes damage to the spore's inner membrane.

Methods and results: Spores of B. subtilis were killed 80-99% with wet heat or a variety of oxidizing agents, including betadine, chlorine dioxide, cumene hydroperoxide, hydrogen peroxide, Oxone, ozone, sodium hypochlorite and t-butylhydroperoxide, and the agents neutralized and/or removed. Survivors of spores pretreated with oxidizing agents exhibited increased sensitivity to killing by a normally minimal lethal heat treatment, while spores pretreated with wet heat did not. In addition, spores treated with wet heat or the oxidizing agents, except sodium hypochlorite, were more sensitive to high NaCl in plating media than were untreated spores. The core region of spores treated with at least two oxidizing agents was also penetrated much more readily by methylamine than was the core of untreated spores, and spores treated with oxidizing agents but not wet heat germinated faster with dodecylamine than did untreated spores. Spores of strains with very different levels of unsaturated fatty acids in their inner membrane exhibited essentially identical resistance to oxidizing agents.

Conclusions: Treatment of spores with oxidizing agents has been suggested to cause damage to the spore's inner membrane, a membrane whose integrity is essential for spore viability. The sensitization of spores to killing by heat and to high salt after pretreatment with oxidizing agents is consistent with and supports this suggestion. Presumably mild pretreatment with oxidizing agents causes some damage to the spore's inner membrane. While this damage may not be lethal under normal conditions, the damaged inner membrane may be less able to maintain its integrity, when dormant spores are exposed to high temperature or when germinated spores are faced with osmotic stress. Triggering of spore germination by dodecylamine likely involves action by this agent on the spore's inner membrane allowing release of the spore core's depot of dipicolinic acid. Presumably dodecylamine more readily alters the permeability of a damaged inner membrane and thus more readily triggers germination of spores pretreated with oxidizing agents. Damage to the inner spore membrane by oxidizing agents is also consistent with the more rapid penetration of methylamine into the core of treated spores, as the inner membrane is likely the crucial permeability barrier to methylamine entry into the spore core. As spores of strains with very different levels of unsaturated fatty acids in their inner membrane exhibited essentially identical resistance to oxidizing agents, it is not through oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids that oxidizing agents kill and/or damage spores. Perhaps these agents work by causing oxidative damage to key proteins in the spore's inner membrane.

Significance and impact of the study: The more rapid heat killing and germination with dodecylamine, the greater permeability of the spore core and the osmotic stress sensitivity in outgrowth of spores pretreated with oxidizing agents is consistent with such agents causing damage to the spore's inner membrane, even if this damage is not lethal under normal conditions. It may be possible to take advantage of this phenomenon to devise improved, less costly regimens for spore inactivation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amines / pharmacology
  • Bacillus subtilis / drug effects*
  • Bacillus subtilis / metabolism
  • Bacillus subtilis / physiology
  • Benzene Derivatives / pharmacology
  • Culture Media
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / analysis
  • Glucose / pharmacology
  • Hot Temperature
  • Hydrogen Peroxide / pharmacology
  • Membranes / drug effects
  • Membranes / physiology
  • Methylamines / pharmacokinetics
  • Oxidants / pharmacology*
  • Permeability
  • Sodium Chloride / pharmacology
  • Sodium Hypochlorite / pharmacology
  • Spores, Bacterial / drug effects
  • Spores, Bacterial / metabolism
  • Spores, Bacterial / physiology
  • Surface-Active Agents / pharmacology
  • tert-Butylhydroperoxide / pharmacology


  • Amines
  • Benzene Derivatives
  • Culture Media
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Methylamines
  • Oxidants
  • Surface-Active Agents
  • Sodium Chloride
  • tert-Butylhydroperoxide
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • methylamine
  • Sodium Hypochlorite
  • Glucose
  • cumene hydroperoxide
  • dodecylamine