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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

RNA:protein ratio of the unicellular organism as a characteristic of phosphorous and nitrogen stoichiometry and of the cellular requirement of ribosomes for protein synthesis

Tatiana V Karpinets14*, Duncan J Greenwood2, Carl E Sams1 and John T Ammons3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee, 2431 Joe Johnson Drive. Knoxville, TN 37996-4561, USA

2 Warwick HRI, Warwick University, Wellesbourne, Warwick, CV35 9EF, UK

3 Biosystems Engineering & Environmental Science Department, University of Tennessee, 2506 E. J. Chapman Drive, Knoxville, TN 37996-4531, USA

4 Computer Science and Mathematics Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, P.O. Box 2008, MS6164, Oak Ridge, TN 37831, USA

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BMC Biology 2006, 4:30  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-4-30

Published: 5 September 2006



Mean phosphorous:nitrogen (P:N) ratios and relationships of P:N ratios with the growth rate of organisms indicate a surprising similarity among and within microbial species, plants, and insect herbivores. To reveal the cellular mechanisms underling this similarity, the macromolecular composition of seven microorganisms and the effect of specific growth rate (SGR) on RNA:protein ratio, the number of ribosomes, and peptide elongation rate (PER) were analyzed under different conditions of exponential growth.


It was found that P:N ratios calculated from RNA and protein contents in these particular organisms were in the same range as the mean ratios reported for diverse organisms and had similar positive relationships with growth rate, consistent with the growth-rate hypothesis. The efficiency of protein synthesis in microorganisms is estimated as the number of active ribosomes required for the incorporation of one amino acid into the synthesized protein. This parameter is calculated as the SGR:PER ratio. Experimental and theoretical evidence indicated that the requirement of ribosomes for protein synthesis is proportional to the RNA:protein ratio. The constant of proportionality had the same values for all organisms, and was derived mechanistically from the characteristics of the protein-synthesis machinery of the cell (the number of nucleotides per ribosome, the average masses of nucleotides and amino acids, the fraction of ribosomal RNA in the total RNA, and the fraction of active ribosomes). Impairment of the growth conditions decreased the RNA:protein ratio and increased the overall efficiency of protein synthesis in the microorganisms.


Our results suggest that the decrease in RNA:protein and estimated P:N ratios with decrease in the growth rate of the microorganism is a consequence of an increased overall efficiency of protein synthesis in the cell resulting from activation of the general stress response and increased transcription of cellular maintenance genes at the expense of growth related genes. The strong link between P:N stoichiometry, RNA:protein ratio, ribosomal requirement for protein synthesis, and growth rate of microorganisms indicated by the study could be used to characterize the N and P economy of complex ecosystems such as soils and the oceans.