Adaptive mutation is common in E. coli, say IU researchers

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The quickening of genetic mutation rates in bacteria may not only happen when the microorganisms find themselves in strange and stressful circumstances. A new report in Molecular Microbiology by Indiana University Bloomington researchers shows that at least one bacterium, Escherichia coli, ratchets up its "adaptive mutation" machinery when it simply runs out of food.

Biologists Patricia Foster and Jill Layton found that as E. coli cells begin to starve, the bacteria quadruple their expression of DNA Polymerase IV (Pol IV), a mutation-causing enzyme that is notoriously bad at copying DNA accurately. The culprit, the scientists discovered, is sigma-38, a stress protein that appears to activate expression of the Pol IV gene.

"We've known that bacteria respond to different kinds of stress by activating 30 genes or so," said Foster, who led the study. "We now know Pol IV is part of the response to starvation, which E. coli experience regularly during their life cycles. This polymerase may provide the bacterium with new properties that help them get out of difficulty by, for example, giving them the ability to use other food sources for growth."

The identification of genes controlling increased mutation rates in other, more dangerous bacteria could arm hospitals with a new type of weapon that helps them keep up with nosocomial infections caused by quickly mutating bacteria.

But the discovery also feeds a fiery theoretical debate over when and why a bacterium might increase its mutation rate. Many scientists contend that dramatically increased rates of mutation are almost always bad for bacteria, while others believe the bacteria depend on adaptive mutation to outlast the trials of harsh environments. Previously, the increased expression of Pol IV was thought to be limited to weird, drastic circumstances, the kind which might force a bacterium to mutate or die. But Foster and Layton have shown that a very common situatio

Contact: David Bricker
Indiana University

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