The SOS response is a global response to DNA damage in which the cell cycle is arrested and DNA repair and mutagenesis are induced. The system involves the RecA protein (Rad51 in eukaryotes). The RecA protein, stimulated by single-stranded DNA, is involved in the inactivation of the LexA repressor thereby inducing the response. It is an error-prone repair system.
During normal growth, the SOS genes are negatively regulated by LexA repressor protein dimers. Under normal conditions, LexA binds to a 20-bp consensus sequence (the SOS box) in the operator region for those genes. Some of these SOS genes are expressed at certain levels even in the repressed state, according to the affinity of LexA for their SOS box. Activation of the SOS genes occurs after DNA damage by the accumulation of single stranded (ssDNA) regions generated at replication forks, where DNA polymerase is blocked. RecA forms a filament around these ssDNA regions in an ATP-dependent fashion, and becomes activated. The activated form of RecA interacts with the LexA repressor to facilitate the LexA repressor's self-cleavage from the operator.
Once the pool of LexA decreases, repression of the SOS genes goes down according to the level of LexA affinity for the SOS boxes. Operators that bind LexA weakly are the first to be fully expressed. In this way LexA can sequentially activate different mechanisms of repair. Genes having a weak SOS box (such as lexA, recA, uvrA, uvrB, and uvrD) are fully induced in response to even weak SOS-inducing treatments. Thus the first SOS repair mechanism to be induced is nucleotide excision repair (NER), whose aim is to fix DNA damage without commitment to a full-fledged SOS response.
If, however, NER does not suffice to fix the damage, the LexA concentration is further reduced, so the expression of genes with stronger LexA boxes (such as sulA, umuD, umuC - these are expressed late) is induced. SulA stops cell division by binding to FtsZ, the initiating protein in this process. This causes filamentation, and the induction of UmuDC-dependent mutagenic repair. As a result of these properties, some genes may be partially induced in response to even endogenous levels of DNA damage, while other genes appear to be induced only when high or persistent DNA damage is present in the cell.
Recent research has shown that the SOS pathway may be essential in the acquisition of bacterial mutations which lead to resistance to some antibiotic drugs. The increased rate of mutation during the SOS response is caused by three low-fidelity DNA polymerases: Pol II, Pol IV and Pol V. Researchers are now targeting these proteins with the aim of creating drugs that prevent SOS repair. By doing so, the time needed for pathogenic bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance could be extended, and thus improve the long term viability of some antibiotic drugs.
In Escherichia coli, different classes of DNA-damaging agents can initiate the SOS response, as described above. Taking advantage of an operon fusion placing the lac operon (responsible for producing beta-galactosidase, a protein which degrades lactose) under the control of an SOS-related protein, a simple colorimetric assay for genotoxicity is possible. A lactose analog is added to the bacteria, which is then degraded by beta-galactosidase, there-by producing a colored compound which can be measured quantitatively through spectrophotometry. The degree of color development is an indirect measure of the beta-galactosidase produced, which itself is directly related to the amount of DNA damage.
The E. coli are further modified in order to have a number of mutations including a uvrA mutation which renders the strain deficient in excision repair, increasing the response to certain DNA-damaging agents, as well as an rfa mutation, which renders the bacteria lipopolysaccharide-deficient, allowing better diffusion of certain chemicals into the cell in order to induce the SOS response.  Commercial kits which measures the primary response of the E. coli cell to genetic damage are available and may be highly correlated with the Ames Test for certain materials.
- Michel B (2005). "After 30 Years of Study, the Bacterial SOS Response Still Surprises Us". PLoS Biology 3 (7): e255. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030255. PMC 1174825. PMID 16000023.
- Radman, M (1975). "Phenomenology of an inducible mutagenic DNA repair pathway in Escherichia coli: SOS repair pichulein hypothesis". Basic Life Sciences 5A: 355–367. PMID 1103845.
- Nelson, David L., and Michael M. Cox. Lehninger: Principles of Biochemistry 4th Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2005. page 1098.
- Cirz, RT et al.; Chin, JK; Andes, DR; De Crécy-Lagard, V; Craig, WA; Romesberg, FE (2005). "Inhibition of Mutation and Combating the Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance". PLoS Biology 3 (6): e176. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030176. PMC 1088971. PMID 15869329.
- Lee, AM et al.; Ross, CT; Zeng, BB; Singleton, SF (2005). "A Molecular Target for Suppression of the Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance: Inhibition of the Escherichia coli RecA Protein by N6-(1-Naphthyl)-ADP". Journal of Medicinal Chemistry 48 (17): 5408–5411. doi:10.1021/jm050113z. PMID 16107138.
- Quillardet, Hofnung (1993). "The SOS Chromotest: A Review". Mutation Research 297 (3): 235–279 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC347033/. doi:10.1016/0165-1110(93)90019-J. PMC 347033. PMID 6821127.
- Quillardet, Bellecombe, Hofnung (1985). "The SOS Chromotest, a colorimetric bacterial assay for genotoxins: validation study with 83 compounds". Mutation Research 147: 79–95. PMID 3923333.