Recruitment of genes and enzymes conferring resistance to the nonnatural toxin bromoacetate

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Oct 19;107(42):17968-73. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007559107. Epub 2010 Oct 4.


Microbial niches contain toxic chemicals capable of forcing organisms into periods of intense natural selection to afford survival. Elucidating the mechanisms by which microbes evade environmental threats has direct relevance for understanding and combating the rise of antibiotic resistance. In this study we used a toxic small-molecule, bromoacetate, to model the selective pressures imposed by antibiotics and anthropogenic toxins. We report the results of genetic selection experiments that identify nine genes from Escherichia coli whose overexpression affords survival in the presence of a normally lethal concentration of bromoacetate. Eight of these genes encode putative transporters or transmembrane proteins, while one encodes the essential peptidoglycan biosynthetic enzyme, UDP-N-acetylglucosamine enolpyruvoyl transferase (MurA). Biochemical studies demonstrate that the primary physiological target of bromoacetate is MurA, which becomes irreversibly inactivated via alkylation of a critical active-site cysteine. We also screened a comprehensive library of E. coli single-gene deletion mutants and identified 63 strains displaying increased susceptibility to bromoacetate. One hypersensitive bacterium lacks yliJ, a gene encoding a predicted glutathione transferase. Herein, YliJ is shown to catalyze the glutathione-dependent dehalogenation of bromoacetate with a k(cat)/K(m) value of 5.4 × 10(3) M(-1) s(-1). YliJ displays exceptional substrate specificity and produces a rate enhancement exceeding 5 orders of magnitude, remarkable characteristics for reactivity with a nonnatural molecule. This study illustrates the wealth of intrinsic survival mechanisms that can be exploited by bacteria when they are challenged with toxins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetates / toxicity*
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / enzymology*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • Glutathione Transferase / metabolism


  • Acetates
  • bromoacetate
  • Glutathione Transferase