Indole at low concentration helps exponentially growing Escherichia coli survive at high temperature.

05 Feb 2018

A culture of stationary phase Escherichia coli cells has been reported to produce copious indole when exposed to high temperature (50°C), and this response has been proposed to aid survival. We reinvestigated this phenomenon and found that indole production under these conditions is probably not a direct response to heat stress. Rather, E. coli produces indole when growth is prevented, irrespective of whether this is due to heat stress, antibiotic treatment or the removal of nutrients. Moreover, 300μM indole produced at 50°C does not improve the viability of heat stressed cells. Interestingly, a much lower concentration of indole (20 μM) improves the survival of an indole-negative strain (ΔtnaA) when heat stressed during exponential growth. In addition we have shown that the distribution of tryptophanase, the enzyme responsible for indole synthesis, is highly heterogeneous among cells in a population, except during the transition between exponential and stationary phases. The observation that, despite the presence of the tryptophanase, very little indole is produced during early exponential phase suggests that there is post-translational regulation of the enzyme.