The rates of formation of the two alternative products of acetohydroxy acid synthase (AHAS) have been determined by a new analytical method (N. Gollop, Z. Barak, and D. M. Chipman, Anal. Biochem., 160:323-331, 1987). For each of the three distinct isozymes of AHAS in Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium, a specificity ratio, R, was defined: Formula: see text, which is constant over a wide range of substrate concentrations. This is consistent with competition between pyruvate and 2-ketobutyrate for an active acetaldehyde intermediate formed irreversibly after addition of the first pyruvate moiety to the enzyme. Isozyme I showed no product preference (R = 1), whereas isozymes II and III form acetohydroxybutyrate (AHB) at approximately 180- and 60-fold faster rates, respectively, than acetolactate (AL) at equal pyruvate and 2-ketobutyrate concentrations. R values higher than 60 represent remarkably high specificity in favor of the substrate with one extra methylene group. In exponentially growing E. coli cells (under aerobic growth on glucose), which contain about 300 microM pyruvate and only 3 microM 2-ketobutyrate, AHAS I would produce almost entirely AL and only 1 to 2% AHB. However, isozymes II and III would synthesize AHB (on the pathway to Ile) and AL (on the pathway to valine-leucine) in essentially the ratio required for protein synthesis. The specificity ratio R of any AHAS isozyme was affected neither by the natural feedback inhibitors (Val, Ile) nor by the pH. On the basis of the specificities of the isozymes, the known regulation of AHAS I expression by the catabolite repression system, and the reported behavior of bacterial mutants containing single AHAS isozymes, we suggest that AHAS I enables a bacterium to cope with poor carbon sources, which lead to low endogenous pyruvate concentrations. Although AHAS II and III are well suited to producing the branched-chain amino acid precursors during growth on glucose, they would fail to provide appropriate quantities of AL when the concentration of pyruvate is relatively low
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