Five open reading frames designated nirB, nirD, nirE, nirC and cysG have been identified from the DNA sequence of the Escherichia coli nir operon. Complementation experiments established that the NirB, NirD and CysG polypeptides are essential and sufficient for NADH-dependent nitrite reductase activity (EC 22.214.171.124). A series of plasmids has been constructed in which each of the open reading frames has been fused in-phase with the p-galactosidase gene, lacZ. Rates of β-galactosidase synthesis during growth in different media revealed that nirB, -D, -E and -C are transcribed from the FNR-dependent promoter, p-nirB, located just upstream of the nirB gene: expression is co-ordinately repressed by oxygen and induced during anaerobic growth. Although the nirB, -D and -C open reading frames are translated into protein, no translation of nirE mRNA was detected. The cysG gene product is expressed from both p-nirB and a second, FNR-independent promoter, p-cysG, located within the nirC gene.
No NADH-dependent nitrite reductase activity was detected in extracts from bacteria lacking either NirB or NirD, but a mixture of the two was as active as an extract from wild-type bacteria. Reconstitution of enzyme activity in vitro required stoichiometric quantities of NirB and NirD and was rapid and independent of the temperature during mixing. NirD remained associated with NirB during the initial stages of purification of the active enzyme, suggesting that NirD is a second structural subunit of the enzyme.