Specific hybridization assays for intermediates in rRNA synthesis (pre-rRNA) may become useful for monitoring the growth activity of individual microbial species in complex natural systems. This possibility depends upon the assumption that rRNA processing in microbial cells continues after growth and pre-rRNA synthesis cease, resulting in drainage of the pre-rRNA pool. This is not the case in many eukaryotic cells, but less is known about the situation in bacteria. Therefore, we used DNA probes to measure steady-state cellular pre-16S rRNA pools during growth state transitions in Escherichia coli. Pre-16S rRNA became undetectable when cells entered the stationary phase on rich medium and was replenished upon restoration of favorable growth conditions. These fluctuations were of much greater magnitude than concurrent fluctuations in the mature 16S rRNA pool. The extent of pre-16S rRNA depletion depended upon the circumstances limiting growth. It was significantly more pronounced in carbon-energy-starved cells than in nitrogen-starved cells or in cells treated with energy uncouplers. In the presence of the transcriptional inhibitor rifampin, rates of pre-16S rRNA depletion in carbon-energy-starved cells and nitrogen-starved cells were similar, suggesting that the difference between these conditions resides primarily at the level of pre-rRNA synthesis. Chloramphenicol, which inhibits the final steps in rRNA maturation, halted pre-16S rRNA depletion under all conditions. The data show that E. coli cells continue to process pre-rRNA after growth and rrn operon transcription cease, leading to drainage of the pre-rRNA pool. This supports the feasibility of using pre-rRNA-targeted probes to monitor bacterial growth in natural systems, with the caveat that patterns of pre-rRNA depletion vary with the conditions limiting growth
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