The metabolism of propionate was examined in wild-type Escherichia coli and cells lacking citrate synthase by high-resolution 13C n.m.r. Spectra of cell extracts from wild-type E. coli show that glutamate becomes highly enriched in 13C when 13C-enriched propionate is the sole carbon source. No glutamate labelling was detected when the tricarboxylic acid cycle was blocked either by deletion of citrate synthase or by inhibition of succinate dehydrogenase by malonate. The 13C fractional enrichment in glutamate C-2, C-3 and C-4 in wild-type cells was quantitatively and qualitatively different when [2-13C]propionate as opposed to [3-13C]propionate was supplied. Approximately equal labelling occurred in the C-2, C-3 and C-4 positions of glutamate when [3-13C]propionate was available, and multiplets due to carbon-carbon spin-spin coupling were observed. However, in cells supplied with [2-13C]propionate, very little 13C appeared in the glutamate C-4 position, and the remaining glutamate resonances all appeared as singlets. The unequal and non-identical labelling of glutamate in cells supplied with [2-13C]- as opposed to [3-13C]propionate is consistent with the utilization of propionate by E. coli via two pathways, oxidation of propionate to pyruvate and carboxylation of propionate to succinate. These intermediates are further metabolized to glutamate by the action of the tricarboxylic acid cycle. The existence of an organized tricarboxylic acid cycle is discussed as a consequence of the ability to block utilization of propionate in tricarboxylic acid-cycle-defective E. coli.

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