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J Biol Chem. 2012 Aug 17;287(34):28816-9. doi: 10.1074/jbc.C112.394403. Epub 2012 Jul 13.

Growth of a bacterium that apparently uses arsenic instead of phosphorus is a consequence of massive ribosome breakdown.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, Miami, Florida 33136, USA.


A recent study (Wolfe-Simon, F., Switzer Blum, J., Kulp, T. R., Gordon, G. W., Hoeft, S. E., Pett-Ridge, J., Stolz, J. F., Webb, S. M., Weber, P. K., Davies, P. C., Anbar, A. D., and Oremland, R. S. (2011) Science 332, 1163-1166) described the isolation of a special bacterial strain, GFAJ-1, that could grow in medium containing arsenate, but lacking phosphate, and that supposedly could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its biological macromolecules. Here, we provide an alternative explanation for these observations and show that they can be reproduced in a laboratory strain of Escherichia coli. We find that arsenate induces massive ribosome degradation, which provides a source of phosphate. A small number of arsenate-tolerant cells arise during the long lag period prior to initiation of growth in +As/-P medium, and it is this population that undergoes the very slow, limited growth observed for both E. coli and GFAJ-1. These results provide a simple explanation for the reported growth of GFAJ-1 in arsenate without invoking replacement of phosphorus by arsenic in biological macromolecules.

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