The signalling molecule indole occurs in significant amounts in the mammalian intestinal tract and regulates diverse microbial processes, including bacterial motility, biofilm formation, antibiotic resistance and host cell invasion. In Escherichia coli, the enzyme tryptophanase (TnaA) produces indole from tryptophan, but it is not clear what determines how much indole E. coli can produce and excrete, making it difficult to interpret experiments that investigate the biological effects of indole at high concentrations. Here, we report that the final yield of indole depends directly, and perhaps solely, on the amount of exogenous tryptophan. When supplied with a range of tryptophan concentrations, E. coli converted this amino acid into an equal amount of indole, up to almost 5 mM, an amount well within the range of the highest concentrations so far examined for their physiological effects. Indole production relied heavily on the tryptophan-specific transporter TnaB, even though the alternative transporters AroP and Mtr could import sufficient tryptophan to induce tnaA expression. This TnaB requirement proceeded via tryptophan transport and was not caused by activation of TnaA itself. Bacterial growth was unaffected by the presence of TnaA in the absence of exogenous tryptophan, suggesting that the enzyme does not hydrolyse significant quantities of the internal anabolic amino acid pool. The results imply that E. coli synthesizes TnaA and TnaB mainly, or solely, for the purpose of converting exogenous tryptophan into indole, under conditions and for signalling purposes that remain to be fully elucidated.
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