The E. coli has a genome with approximately 5×106 bp. The main DNA polymerase involved in its chromosome duplication (DNA pol III , the one with highest processivity) can polymerize ~103 nucleotides per second. By a simple calculation, we would conclude that the whole chromosome duplication would take ~ 5000 seconds ( about 80 minutes, so more than an hour). The whole cell duplication would probably take much more than that, considering not only DNA Pol III is involved. However, in optimal conditions, E. coli can actually duplicate in ~30 minutes. How could that be possible?

OBS.: all the numbers used here are aproximate, but sufficient to account for the correct orders of magnitude.

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    $\begingroup$ In bacteria there's only one (oriC), right? $\endgroup$
    – El Cid
    Mar 2, 2015 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ The replication is going on at several spots at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Mar 2, 2015 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that replication proceeds in both directions from oriC so, based on your calculations, DNA replication takes 40 minutes (which is still too long). The solution is to start replication again before the previous round has completed. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2063475 $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Mar 2, 2015 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to @canadianer comment: at any point the E.coli genome is not exactly haploid. The copy number is greater than one. The chromosome looks somewhat like a wedding ring. Canadianer, you should convert that comment to an answer. $\endgroup$
    Mar 3, 2015 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ Larry Moran has a nice description of the process, complete with diagrams, on his blog: sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/05/… $\endgroup$
    – Corvus
    Mar 3, 2015 at 6:16

2 Answers 2


Though Escherichia coli has only one origin of replication (oriC), replication proceeds in both directions from it. Thus, based on your calculations, DNA replication takes 40 minutes (which is still too long if the doubling time is 30 minutes). The solution is to start replication again before the previous round has completed, and here's some research which shows just that:

Yoshikawa H, O'Sulliven A, Sueoka N. 1964. Sequential replication of the Bacillus subtilis chromosome. Prod Nat Acad Sci 52:973-980

Obviously, dichotomous replication is advantageous for bacterial growth because the bacteria can replicate chromosomes faster than by having one replication point. With one replication point, the replication time, and consequently the cell generation time, would be limited by the maximal rate of DNA polymerase.

Cooper S, Helmstetter CE. 1968. Chromosome replication and the division cycle of Escherichia coli B/r. J Mol Bio 31(3):519-540

…cells growing faster than 40 minutes per doubling must initiate new replication points prior to the completion of DNA synthesis at the previous points; in other words, there should be multiple forks.

Skarstad K, Boye E, Steen HB. 1986. Timing of initiation of chromosome replication in individual Escherichia coli cells. EMBO J 5(7):1711-1717

In rapidly growing cultures, with parallel replication of several chromosomes, cells will end up with 2n (n = 1, 2, 3) chromosomes if initiation occurs simultaneously at all origins. A culture with asynchronous initiation may in addition contain cells with irregular numbers (not equal to 2n) of chromosomes. The frequency of cells with irregular numbers of chromosomes is a measure of the degree of asynchrony of initiation.

Fossum S, Crooke E, Skarstad K. 2007. Organization of sister origins and replisomes during multifork DNA replication in Escherichia coli. EMBO J 26(21):4514-4522

…initiation occurs at two origins in the ‘mother' cell. It can even occur in the ‘grandmother' cell at four origins if the time it takes to replicate and segregate the chromosome exceeds two generations.

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This last image is interesting because you actually see the multiple replication origins in single cells by fluorescence microscopy.


Cell division rates may exceed DNA replication rates, because DNA replication can occur in parallel, while cell division is always serial. In a circular chromosome like E. coli, replication starts at the origin of replication. Once the origin is replicated, another chromosome replication can be initiated there, while the former isn't even finished. This parallel replication hence allows for cell division rates exceeding chromosome duplication speeds.

forked replication
Forked replication in E. coli. Source: Fossum et al. (2007)

- Fossum et al., EMBO journal (2007); 26: 4514–22


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