Thymine metabolism and thymineless death in prokaryotes and eukaryotes

Annu Rev Microbiol. 1998;52:591-625. doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.52.1.591.


For many years it has been known that thymine auxotrophic microorganisms undergo cell death in response to thymine starvation [thymineless death (TLD)]. This effect is unusual in that deprivation of many other nutritional requirements has a biostatic, but not lethal, effect. Studies of numerous microbes have indicated that thymine starvation has both direct and indirect effects. The direct effects involve both single- and double-strand DNA breaks. The former may be repaired effectively, but the latter lead to cell death. DNA damaged by thymine starvation is a substrate for DNA repair processes, in particular recombinational repair. Mutations in recBCD recombinational repair genes increase sensitivity to thymineless death, whereas mutations in RecF repair protein genes enhance the recovery process. This suggests that the RecF repair pathway may be critical to cell death, perhaps because it increases the occurrence of double-strand DNA breaks with unique DNA configurations at lesion sites. Indirect effects in bacteria include elimination of plasmids, loss of transforming ability, filamentation, changes in the pool sizes of various nucleotides and nucleosides and in their excretion, and phage induction. Yeast cells show effects similar to those of bacteria upon thymine starvation, although there are some unique features. The mode of action of certain anticancer drugs and antibiotics is based on the interruption of thymidylate metabolism and provides a major impetus for further studies on TLD. There are similarities between TLD of bacteria and death of eukaryotic cells. Also, bacteria have "survival" genes other than thy (thymidylate synthetase), and this raises the question of whether there is a relationship between the two. A model is presented for a molecular basis of TLD.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Culture Media / chemistry
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA Damage / genetics
  • DNA Repair / genetics
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • DNA, Single-Stranded / genetics
  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Eukaryotic Cells / enzymology
  • Eukaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Exodeoxyribonuclease V
  • Exodeoxyribonucleases / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Prokaryotic Cells / enzymology
  • Prokaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Thymidylate Synthase / metabolism
  • Thymine / administration & dosage
  • Thymine / metabolism*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Culture Media
  • DNA, Bacterial
  • DNA, Single-Stranded
  • DNA, Viral
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • DNA
  • recF protein, Bacteria
  • Thymidylate Synthase
  • Exodeoxyribonucleases
  • Exodeoxyribonuclease V
  • Thymine