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BACKGROUND: Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a significant human pathogen capable of replicating in mononuclear phagocytic cells. Exposure to reactive oxygen and nitrogen intermediates is likely to represent an important aspect of the life cycle of this organism. The response of M. tuberculosis to these agents may be of significance for its survival in the host. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Patterns of de novo proteins synthesized in M. tuberculosis H37Rv exposed to compounds that generate reactive oxygen and nitrogen intermediates were studied by metabolic labeling and two-dimensional electrophoresis. RESULTS: Menadione, a redox cycling compound which increases intracellular superoxide levels, caused enhanced synthesis of seven polypeptides, six of which appeared to be heat shock proteins. Chemical release of nitric oxide induced eight polypeptides of which only one could be identified as a heat shock protein. Nitric oxide also exhibited a mild inhibitory action on general protein synthesis in the concentration range tested. Hydrogen peroxide did not cause differential gene expression and exerted a generalized inhibition in a dose-dependent manner. Cumene hydroperoxide caused mostly inhibition but induction of two heat shock proteins was detectable. CONCLUSIONS: The presented findings indicate major differences between M. tuberculosis and the paradigms of oxidative stress response in enteric bacteria, and are consistent with the multiple lesions found in oxyR of this organism. The effect of hydrogen peroxide, which in Escherichia coli induces eight polypeptides known to be controlled by the central regulator oxyR, appears to be absent in M. tuberculosis. Superoxide and nitric oxide responses, which in E. coli overlap and are controlled by the same regulatory system soxRS, represent discrete and independent phenomena in M. tuberculosis.