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BACKGROUND: Tetrazolium salts are widely used in biology as indicators of metabolic activity - hence termed vital dyes - but their reduction site is still debated despite decades of intensive research. The prototype, 2,3,5- triphenyl tetrazolium chloride, which was first synthesized a century ago, often generates a single formazan granule at the old pole of Escherichia coli cells after reduction. So far, no explanation for their pole localization has been proposed. METHOD/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Here we provide evidence that the granules form in the periplasm of bacterial cells. A source of reducing power is deduced to be thiol groups destined to become disulfides, since deletion of dsbA, coding for thiol-oxidase, enhances the formation of reduced formazan. However, pervasive reduction did not result in a random distribution of formazan aggregates. In filamentous cells, large granules appear at regular intervals of about four normal cell-lengths, consistent with a diffusion-to-capture model. Computer simulations of a minimal biophysical model showed that the pole localization of granules is a spontaneous process, i.e. small granules in a normal size bacterium have lower energy at the poles. This biased their diffusion to the poles. They kept growing there and eventually became fixed. CONCLUSIONS: We observed that formazan granules formed in the periplasm after reduction of tetrazolium, which calls for re-evaluation of previous studies using cell-free systems that liberate inaccessible intracellular reductant and potentially generate artifacts. The localization of formazan granules in E. coli cells can now be understood. In living bacteria, the seeds formed at or migrated to the new pole would become visible only when that new pole already became an old pole, because of the relatively slow growth rate of granules relative to cell division.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Coloring Agents, Computer Simulation, Cytoplasmic Granules, Diffusion, Escherichia coli, Formazans, Mutation, Periplasm, Reproducibility of Results, Tetrazolium Salts