Escherichia coli K-12 Lacks a High-Affinity Assimilatory Cysteine Importer

mBio. 2020 Jun 9;11(3):e01073-20. doi: 10.1128/mBio.01073-20.


The most direct route by which microbes might assimilate sulfur would be by importing cysteine. However, alone among the amino acids, cysteine does not have well-characterized importers. We determined that Escherichia coli can rapidly import cysteine, but in our experiments, it did so primarily through the LIV ATP-driven system that is dedicated to branched-chain amino acids. The affinity of this system for cysteine is far lower than for Leu, Ile, and Val, and so in their presence, cysteine is excluded. Thus, this transport is unlikely to be relevant in natural environments. Growth studies, transcriptomics, and transport assays failed to detect any high-affinity importer that is dedicated to cysteine assimilation. Enteric bacteria do not contain the putative cysteine importer that was identified in Campylobacter jejuni This situation is surprising, because E. coli deploys ion- and/or ATP-driven transporters that import cystine, the oxidized form of cysteine, with high affinity and specificity. We conjecture that in oxic environments, molecular oxygen oxidizes environmental cysteine to cystine, which E. coli imports. In anoxic environments where cysteine is stable, the cell chooses to assimilate hydrogen sulfide instead. Calculations suggest that this alternative is almost as economical, and it avoids the toxic effects that can result when excess cysteine enters the cell.IMPORTANCE This investigation discovered that Escherichia coli lacks a transporter dedicated to the assimilation of cysteine, an outcome that is in striking contrast to the many transporters devoted to the other 19 amino acids. We ascribe the lack of a high-affinity cysteine importer to two considerations. First, the chemical reactivity of this amino acid is unique, and its poorly controlled import can have adverse consequences for the cell. Second, our analysis suggests that the economics of biosynthesis depend sharply upon whether the cell is respiring or fermenting. In the anoxic habitats in which cysteine might be found, the value of import versus biosynthesis is strongly reduced compared to that in oxic habitats. These studies may explain why bacteria choose to synthesize rather than to import other useful biomolecules as well.

Keywords: LIV system; YhaO; amino acid uptake.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Transport Systems, Neutral / metabolism*
  • Anaerobiosis
  • Biological Transport
  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Sulfur / metabolism*


  • Amino Acid Transport Systems, Neutral
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Sulfur
  • Cysteine