In a laboratory-selected Cr-tolerant strain of the unicellular green alga Scenedesmus acutus, the capacity to synthesize higher amounts of cysteine (Cys) and reduced glutathione (GSH) than the wild-type was demonstrated to underlie tolerance to Cd and Cr(VI). In photosynthetic organisms sulfate constitutes the main sulfur source for the biosynthesis of GSH and its precursor Cys, hence it was hypothesized that the sensitivity of the two strains to Cr(VI) could be modified after culturing in sulfate-deprived medium. Both strains were grown in the presence of different concentrations or in the absence of sulfate (sulfur-starved) and then assayed for Cr(VI) tolerance in standard medium. Unstarved, sulfur-starved and sulfur-replete cells (cells maintained in standard medium after S-starvation) were analysed for Cys, GSH and sulfur content. Sulfur-starved cells showed a greater tolerance to Cr(VI) than unstarved ones. The increased tolerance was ascribable to a transient physiological change and can be considered as specifically due to sulfur deprivation, since it was lost after a 3-day culture in standard medium and was not exhibited by nitrogen-starved cells. The comparison between Cys, GSH and sulfur content in sulfur-starved and sulfur-replete cells of the two strains suggests that the higher tolerance to Cr(VI) after S-starvation could depend on the up-regulation of sulfate uptake mechanisms, and that the primary reason for the higher tolerance to chromium in the selected strain could be due to greater sensitivity to the decrease in negative intracellular end-products (free Cys and GSH) leading to an earlier up-regulation of sulfate assimilation processes.
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