Role of RecA and the SOS response in thymineless death in Escherichia coli

PLoS Genet. 2010 Mar 5;6(3):e1000865. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000865.


Thymineless death (TLD) is a classic and enigmatic phenomenon, documented in bacterial, yeast, and human cells, whereby cells lose viability rapidly when deprived of thymine. Despite its being the essential mode of action of important chemotherapeutic agents, and despite having been studied extensively for decades, the basic mechanisms of TLD have remained elusive. In Escherichia coli, several proteins involved in homologous recombination (HR) are required for TLD, however, surprisingly, RecA, the central HR protein and activator of the SOS DNA-damage response was reported not to be. We demonstrate that RecA and the SOS response are required for a substantial fraction of TLD. We show that some of the Rec proteins implicated previously promote TLD via facilitating activation of the SOS response and that, of the roughly 40 proteins upregulated by SOS, SulA, an SOS-inducible inhibitor of cell division, accounts for most or all of how SOS causes TLD. The data imply that much of TLD results from an irreversible cell-cycle checkpoint due to blocked cell division. FISH analyses of the DNA in cells undergoing TLD reveal blocked replication and apparent DNA loss with the region near the replication origin underrepresented initially and the region near the terminus lost later. Models implicating formation of single-strand DNA at blocked replication forks, a SulA-blocked cell cycle, and RecQ/RecJ-catalyzed DNA degradation and HR are discussed. The data predict the importance of DNA damage-response and HR networks to TLD and chemotherapy resistance in humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Chromosome Segregation
  • Chromosomes, Bacterial / metabolism
  • DNA Replication
  • DNA Topoisomerases, Type I / metabolism
  • DNA, Bacterial / metabolism
  • DNA, Cruciform / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli / cytology*
  • Escherichia coli / enzymology*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Microbial Viability*
  • Models, Biological
  • Rec A Recombinases / metabolism*
  • Recombination, Genetic / genetics
  • SOS Response, Genetics*
  • Thymine / metabolism*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • DNA, Cruciform
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Rec A Recombinases
  • DNA Topoisomerases, Type I
  • Thymine