Ribosomes are known to be degraded under conditions of nutrient limitation. However, the mechanism by which a normally stable ribosome becomes a substrate for the degradation machinery has remained elusive. Here, we present in vitro and in vivo data demonstrating that free ribosome subunits are the actual targets of the degradative enzymes, whereas 70S particles are protected from such degradation. Conditions that increase the formation of subunits both in vitro and in vivo lead to enhanced degradation, while conditions favoring the presence of intact 70S ribosomes prevent or reduce breakdown. Thus, the simple formation of free 50S and 30S subunits is sufficient to serve as the initiation mechanism that allows endoribonuclease cleavage and subsequent ribosome breakdown
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