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Bioessays. 2003 Mar;25(3):204-11.

Nonculturable bacteria: programmed survival forms or cells at death's door?

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Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Microbiology, Göteborg University, Box 462, 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden.


Upon starvation and growth arrest, Escherichia coli cells gradually lose their ability to reproduce. These apparently sterile/nonculturable cells initially remain intact and metabolically active and the underlying molecular mechanism behind this sterility is something of an enigma in bacteriology. Three different models have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. The first theory suggests that starving cells become nonculturable due to cellular deterioration, are moribund, and show some of the same signs of senescence as aging organisms. The two other theories suggest that genetically programmed pathways, rather than stochastic deterioration, trigger nonculturability. One "program" theory suggests that nonculturability is the culmination of an adaptive pathway generating dormant survival forms, similar to spore formation in differentiating bacteria. The other "program" theory states that starved cells lose viability due to activation of genetic modules mediating programmed cell death. The different models will be reviewed and evaluated in light of recent data on the physiology and molecular biology of growth-arrested E. coli cells.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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