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1.  The response regulator ComE in Streptococcus mutans functions both as a transcription activator of mutacin production and repressor of CSP biosynthesis 
Microbiology (Reading, England)  2007;153(Pt 6):1799-1807.
In Streptococcus pneumoniae, competence and bacteriocin genes are controlled by two two-component systems, ComED and BlpRH, respectively. In Streptococcus mutans, both functions are controlled by the ComED system. Recent studies in S. mutans revealed a potential ComE binding site characterized by two 11 bp direct repeats shared by each of the bacteriocin genes responsive to the competence-stimulating peptide (CSP). Interestingly, this sequence was not found in the upstream region of the CSP structural gene comC. Since comC is suggested to be part of a CSP-responsive and ComE-dependent autoregulatory loop, it was of interest to determine how it was possible that the ComED system could simultaneously regulate bacteriocin expression and natural competence. Using the intergenic region IGS1499, shared by the CSP-responsive bacteriocin nlmC and comC, it was demonstrated that both genes are likely to be regulated by a bifunctional ComE. In a comE null mutant, comC gene expression was increased similarly to a fully induced wild-type. In contrast, nlmC gene expression was nearly abolished. Deletion of ComD exerted a similar effect on both genes to that observed with the comE null mutation. Electrophoretic mobility shift assays (EMSAs) with purified ComE revealed specific shift patterns dependent on the presence of one or both direct repeats in the nlmC–comC promoter region. The two direct repeats were also required for the promoter activity of both nlmC and comC. These results suggest that gene regulation of comC in S. mutans is fundamentally different from that reported for S. pneumoniae, which implicates a unique regulatory mechanism that allows the coordination of bacteriocin production with competence development.
PMCID: PMC2062498  PMID: 17526837
2.  Regulation of Bacteriocin Production and Cell Death by the VicRK Signaling System in Streptococcus mutans 
Journal of Bacteriology  2012;194(6):1307-1316.
The VicRK two-component signaling system modulates biofilm formation, genetic competence, and stress tolerance in Streptococcus mutans. We show here that the VicRK modulates bacteriocin production and cell viability, in part by direct modulation of competence-stimulating peptide (CSP) production in S. mutans. Global transcriptome and real-time transcriptional analysis of the VicK-deficient mutant (SmuvicK) revealed significant modulation of several bacteriocin-related loci, including nlmAB, nlmC, and nlmD (P < 0.001), suggesting a role for the VicRK in producing mutacins IV, V, and VI. Bacteriocin overlay assays revealed an altered ability of the vic mutants to kill related species. Since a well-conserved VicR binding site (TGTWAH-N5-TGTWAH) was identified within the comC coding region, we confirmed VicR binding to this sequence using DNA footprinting. Overexpression of the vic operon caused growth-phase-dependent repression of comC, comDE, and comX. In the vic mutants, transcription of nlmC/cipB encoding mutacin V, previously linked to CSP-dependent cell lysis, as well as expression of its putative immunity factor encoded by immB, were significantly affected relative to the wild type (P < 0.05). In contrast to previous reports that proposed a hyper-resistant phenotype for the VicK mutant in cell viability, the release of extracellular genomic DNA was significantly enhanced in SmuvicK (P < 0.05), likely as a result of increased autolysis compared with the parent. The drastic influence of VicRK on cell viability was also demonstrated using vic mutant biofilms. Taken together, we have identified a novel regulatory link between the VicRK and ComDE systems to modulate bacteriocin production and cell viability of S. mutans.
PMCID: PMC3294852  PMID: 22228735
3.  A Quorum-Sensing Signaling System Essential for Genetic Competence in Streptococcus mutans Is Involved in Biofilm Formation 
Journal of Bacteriology  2002;184(10):2699-2708.
In a previous study, a quorum-sensing signaling system essential for genetic competence in Streptococcus mutans was identified, characterized, and found to function optimally in biofilms (Li et al., J. Bacteriol. 183:897-908, 2001). Here, we demonstrate that this system also plays a role in the ability of S. mutans to initiate biofilm formation. To test this hypothesis, S. mutans wild-type strain NG8 and its knockout mutants defective in comC, comD, comE, and comX, as well as a comCDE deletion mutant, were assayed for their ability to initiate biofilm formation. The spatial distribution and architecture of the biofilms were examined by scanning electron microscopy and confocal scanning laser microscopy. The results showed that inactivation of any of the individual genes under study resulted in the formation of an abnormal biofilm. The comC mutant, unable to produce or secrete a competence-stimulating peptide (CSP), formed biofilms with altered architecture, whereas the comD and comE mutants, which were defective in sensing and responding to the CSP, formed biofilms with reduced biomass. Exogenous addition of the CSP and complementation with a plasmid containing the wild-type comC gene into the cultures restored the wild-type biofilm architecture of comC mutants but showed no effect on the comD, comE, or comX mutant biofilms. The fact that biofilms formed by comC mutants differed from the comD, comE, and comX mutant biofilms suggested that multiple signal transduction pathways were affected by CSP. Addition of synthetic CSP into the culture medium or introduction of the wild-type comC gene on a shuttle vector into the comCDE deletion mutant partially restored the wild-type biofilm architecture and further supported this idea. We conclude that the quorum-sensing signaling system essential for genetic competence in S. mutans is important for the formation of biofilms by this gram-positive organism.
PMCID: PMC135014  PMID: 11976299
4.  Genetic Diversity of the Streptococcal Competence (com) Gene Locus 
Journal of Bacteriology  1999;181(10):3144-3154.
The com operon of naturally transformable streptococcal species contains three genes, comC, comD, and comE, involved in the regulation of competence. The comC gene encodes a competence-stimulating peptide (CSP) thought to induce competence in the bacterial population at a critical extracellular concentration. The comD and comE genes are believed to encode the transmembrane histidine kinase and response regulator proteins, respectively, of a two-component regulator, with the comD-encoded protein being a receptor for CSP. Here we report on the genetic variability of comC and comD within Streptococcus pneumoniae isolates. Comparative analysis of sequence variations of comC and comD shows that, despite evidence for horizontal gene transfer at this locus and the lack of transformability of many S. pneumoniae strains in the laboratory, there is a clear correlation between the presence of a particular comC allele and the cognate comD allele. These findings effectively rule out the possibility that the presence of noncognate comC and comD alleles may be responsible for the inability to induce competence in many isolates and indicate the importance of a functional com pathway in these isolates. In addition, we describe a number of novel CSPs from disease-associated strains of S. mitis and S. oralis. The CSPs from these isolates are much more closely related to those from S. pneumoniae than to most CSPs previously reported from S. mitis and S. oralis, suggesting that these particular organisms may be a potential source of DNA in recombination events generating the mosaic structures commonly reported in genes of S. pneumoniae that are under strong selective pressure.
PMCID: PMC93770  PMID: 10322016
5.  Multilevel Control of Competence Development and Stress Tolerance in Streptococcus mutans UA159  
Infection and Immunity  2006;74(3):1631-1642.
Genetic competence appears to be important in establishment of biofilms and tolerance of environmental insults. We report here that the development of competence is controlled at multiple levels in a complex network that includes two signal-transducing two-component systems (TCS). Using Streptococcus mutans strain UA159, we demonstrate that the histidine kinase CiaH, but not the response regulator CiaR, causes a dramatic decrease in biofilm formation and in transformation efficiency. Inactivation of comE or comD had no effect on stress tolerance, but transformability of the mutants was poor and was not restored by addition of competence-stimulating peptide (CSP). Horse serum (HS) or bovine serum albumin (BSA) had no impact on transformability of any strains. Interestingly, though, the presence of HS or BSA in combination with CSP was required for efficient induction of comD, comX, and comYA, and induction was dependent on ComDE and CiaH, but not CiaR. Inactivation of comC, encoding CSP, had no impact on transformation, and CiaH was shown to be required for optimal comC expression. This study reveals that S. mutans integrates multiple environmental signals through CiaHR and ComDE to coordinate induction of com genes and that CiaH can exert its influence through CiaR and as-yet-unidentified regulators. The results highlight critical differences in the role and regulation of CiaRH and com genes in different S. mutans isolates and between S. mutans and Streptococcus pneumoniae, indicating that substantial divergence in the role and regulation of TCS and competence genes has occurred in streptococci.
PMCID: PMC1418624  PMID: 16495534
6.  Identification of a New Regulator in Streptococcus pneumoniae Linking Quorum Sensing to Competence for Genetic Transformation 
Journal of Bacteriology  1999;181(16):5004-5016.
Competence for genetic transformation in Streptococcus pneumoniae is regulated by a quorum-sensing system encoded by two genetic loci, comCDE and comAB. Additional competence-specific operons, cilA, cilB, cilC, cilD, cilE, cinA-recA, coiA, and cfl, involved in the DNA uptake process and recombination, share an unusual consensus sequence at −10 and −25 in the promoter, which is absent from the promoters of comAB and comCDE. This pattern suggests that a factor regulating transcription of these transformation machinery genes but not involved with comCDE and comAB expression might be an alternative sigma factor. A search for such a global transcriptional regulator was begun by purifying pneumococcal RNA polymerase holoenzyme. In preparations from competent pneumococcal cultures a protein which seemed to be responsible for cilA transcription in vitro was identified. The corresponding gene was identified and found to be present in two copies, designated comX1 and comX2, located adjacent to two of the repeated rRNA operons. Expression of transformation machinery operons, such as cilA, cilD, cilE, and cfl, but not that of the quorum-sensing operons comAB and comCDE, was shown to depend on comX, while comX expression depended on ComE but not on ComX itself. We conclude that the factor is a competence-specific global transcription modulator which links quorum-sensing information transduced to ComE to competence and propose that it acts as an alternate sigma factor. We also report that comAB and comCDE are not sufficient for shutoff of competence-stimulating peptide-induced gene expression nor for the subsequent refractory period, suggesting that these phenomena depend on one or more ComX-dependent genes.
PMCID: PMC93990  PMID: 10438773
7.  Extracellular Identification of a Processed Type II ComR/ComS Pheromone of Streptococcus mutans 
Journal of Bacteriology  2012;194(15):3781-3788.
The competence-stimulating peptide (CSP) and the sigX-inducing peptide (XIP) are known to induce Streptococcus mutans competence for genetic transformation. For both pheromones, direct identification of the native peptides has not been accomplished. The fact that extracellular XIP activity was recently observed in a chemically defined medium devoid of peptides, as mentioned in an accompanying paper (K. Desai, L. Mashburn-Warren, M. J. Federle, and D. A. Morrison, J. Bacteriol. 194:3774–3780, 2012), provided ideal conditions for native XIP identification. To search for the XIP identity, culture supernatants were filtered to select for peptides of less than 3 kDa, followed by C18 extraction. One peptide, not detected in the supernatant of a comS deletion mutant, was identified by tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) fragmentation as identical to the ComS C-terminal sequence GLDWWSL. ComS processing did not require Eep, a peptidase involved in processing or import of bacterial small hydrophobic peptides, since eep deletion had no inhibitory effect on XIP production or on synthetic XIP response. We investigated whether extracellular CSP was also produced. A reporter assay for CSP activity detection, as well as MS analysis of supernatants, revealed that CSP was not present at detectable levels. In addition, a mutant with deletion of the CSP-encoding gene comC produced endogenous XIP levels similar to those of a nondeletion mutant. The results indicate that XIP pheromone production is a natural phenomenon that may occur in the absence of natural CSP pheromone activity and that the heptapeptide GLDWWSL is an extracellular processed form of ComS, possibly the active XIP pheromone. This is the first report of direct identification of a ComR/ComS pheromone.
PMCID: PMC3416549  PMID: 22609914
8.  Oligomerization of the Response Regulator ComE from Streptococcus mutans Is Affected by Phosphorylation 
Journal of Bacteriology  2012;194(5):1127-1135.
We have previously characterized the interactions of the response regulator ComE from Streptococcus mutans and DNA binding sites through DNase I footprinting and electrophoretic mobility shift assay analysis. Since response regulator functions are often affected by their phosphorylation state, we investigated how phosphorylation affects the biochemical function of ComE. Unlike many response regulators, we found that the phosphorylation state of ComE does not likely play a role in DNA binding affinity but rather seems to induce the formation of an oligomeric form of the protein. The role of this oligomerization state for ComE function is discussed.
PMCID: PMC3294772  PMID: 22210762
9.  The hdrRM Operon of Streptococcus mutans Encodes a Novel Regulatory System for Coordinated Competence Development and Bacteriocin Production▿  
Journal of Bacteriology  2010;192(7):1844-1852.
The Streptococcus mutans hdrRM operon encodes a novel two-gene regulatory system induced by high cell density. Previous studies identified hdrM as the only known negative regulator of competence development in S. mutans. In the present study, we demonstrated that the HdrRM system bypasses the prototypical competence gene regulators ComC and ComDE in the transcriptional regulation of the competence-specific sigma factor comX and the late competence genes. Similarly, the HdrRM system can abrogate the requirement for ComE to produce the bacteriocin mutacin IV. To further probe the regulatory mechanism of hdrRM, we created an hdrR overexpression strain and showed that it could reproduce each of the hdrM competence and mutacin phenotypes, indicating that HdrM acts as a negative regulator of HdrR activity. Using a mutacin IV-luciferase reporter, we also demonstrated that the hdrRM system utilizes the same promoter elements recognized by ComE and thus appears to comprise a novel regulatory pathway parallel to ComCDE.
PMCID: PMC2838059  PMID: 20118256
10.  Natural Genetic Transformation of Streptococcus mutans Growing in Biofilms 
Journal of Bacteriology  2001;183(3):897-908.
Streptococcus mutans is a bacterium that has evolved to be dependent upon a biofilm “lifestyle” for survival and persistence in its natural ecosystem, dental plaque. We initiated this study to identify the genes involved in the development of genetic competence in S. mutans and to assay the natural genetic transformability of biofilm-grown cells. Using genomic analyses, we identified a quorum-sensing peptide pheromone signaling system similar to those previously found in other streptococci. The genetic locus of this system comprises three genes, comC, comD, and comE, that encode a precursor to the peptide competence factor, a histidine kinase, and a response regulator, respectively. We deduced the sequence of comC and its active pheromone product and chemically synthesized the corresponding 21-amino-acid competence-stimulating peptide (CSP). Addition of CSP to noncompetent cells facilitated increased transformation frequencies, with typically 1% of the total cell population transformed. To further confirm the roles of these genes in genetic competence, we inactivated them by insertion-duplication mutagenesis or allelic replacement followed by assays of transformation efficiency. We also demonstrated that biofilm-grown S. mutans cells were transformed at a rate 10- to 600-fold higher than planktonic S. mutans cells. Donor DNA included a suicide plasmid, S. mutans chromosomal DNA harboring a heterologous erythromycin resistance gene, and a replicative plasmid. The cells were optimally transformed during the formation of 8- to 16-h-old biofilms primarily consisting of microcolonies on solid surfaces. We also found that dead cells in the biofilms could act as donors of a chromosomally encoded antibiotic resistance determinant. This work demonstrated that a peptide pheromone system controls genetic competence in S. mutans and that the system functions optimally when the cells are living in actively growing biofilms.
PMCID: PMC94956  PMID: 11208787
11.  Transcriptional regulation of comC: evidence for a competence-specific transcription factor in Bacillus subtilis. 
Journal of Bacteriology  1990;172(7):4064-4071.
comC specifies a protein product that is required for genetic competence in Bacillus subtilis. The probable transcriptional start site of comC has been localized by high-resolution primer extension analysis and shown to be preceded by an appropriately positioned sequence that resembles the consensus promoter for the sigma A form of RNA polymerase. Low-resolution S1 nuclease transcription mapping was used to identify the comC terminator, which is located near a palindromic element recognizable in the DNA sequence. Deletion analysis of the sequence upstream from the likely promoter identified a region required in cis for the expression of comC. An overlapping, and possibly identical, sequence was shown to inhibit the expression of competence and of several late competence genes, when present in multiple copies. This was interpreted as due to the titration of a positively acting competence transcription factor (CTF) by multiple copies of the promoter-bearing fragment. In crude lysates of B. subtilis grown to competence, a DNA-binding activity that appeared to be specific for the comC promoter fragment was detected by gel retardation assays. This activity, postulated to be due to CTF, was detected only following growth in competence medium, only in the stationary phase of growth, and was dependent on the expression of ComA, a known competence-regulatory factor. In the presence of the mecA42 mutation, the ComA requirement for CTF activity was bypassed, and CTF activity could be detected in lysates prepared from a strain grown in complex medium. This behavior suggested that either the expression or the activation of CTF was regulated in a competence-specific manner. Comparison of the putative CTF-binding site defined by deletion analysis with a similarly positioned sequence upstream from the start site of the late competence gene comG revealed that both sequences contained palindromes, with 5 of 6 identical base pairs in each arm. It is suggested that these palindromic sequences comprise recognition elements for CTF binding and that CTF binding must occur for the appropriate expression of late competence genes.
PMCID: PMC213393  PMID: 1694528
12.  Molecular cloning and characterization of comC, a late competence gene of Bacillus subtilis. 
Journal of Bacteriology  1989;171(11):6043-6051.
comC is a Bacillus subtilis gene required for the development of genetic competence. We have cloned a fragment from the B. subtilis chromosome that carries comC and contains all the information required to complement a Tn917lac insertion in comC. Genetic tests further localized comC to a 2.0-kilobase HindIII fragment. Northern (RNA) blotting experiments revealed that an 800-base-pair comC-specific transcript appeared at the time of transition from exponential to stationary phase during growth through the competence regimen. The DNA sequence of the comC region revealed two open reading frames (ORFs), transcribed in the same direction. The upstream ORF encoded a protein with apparent sequence similarity to the folC gene of Escherichia coli. Insertion of a chloramphenicol resistance determinant into this ORF and integration of the disrupted construct into the bacterial chromosome by replacement did not result in competence deficiency. The downstream ORF, which contained the Tn917lac insertion that resulted in a lack of competence, is therefore the comC gene. The predicted protein product of comC consisted of 248 amino acid residues and was quite hydrophobic. The comC gene product was not required for the expression of any other com genes tested, and this fact, together with the marked hydrophobicity of ComC, suggests that it may be a component of the DNA-processing apparatus of competent cells.
PMCID: PMC210470  PMID: 2553669
13.  Characterization of irvR, a Novel Regulator of the irvA-Dependent Pathway Required for Genetic Competence and Dextran-Dependent Aggregation in Streptococcus mutans▿  
Journal of Bacteriology  2008;190(21):7268-7274.
Previous studies identified irvA as a normally repressed but highly inducible transcription regulator capable of repressing mutacin I gene expression in Streptococcus mutans. In this study, we aimed to identify and characterize the regulator(s) responsible for repressing the expression of irvA. An uncharacterized open reading frame (SMU.1398) located immediately adjacent to irvA and annotated as a putative transcription repressor was identified as a likely candidate. The results of mutation studies confirmed that the expression of irvA was greatly increased in the SMU.1398 background. Mutation of SMU.1398 (“irvR”) abolished genetic competence and reduced the expression of the late competence genes/operons comEA, comY, and dprA without affecting the expression of the known competence regulators comC, comED, or comX. In addition, irvR was found to be a potent negative regulator of dextran-dependent aggregation (DDAG) and gbpC expression. Each of these irvR mutant phenotypes could be rescued with a double mutation of irvA or complemented by introducing a wild-type copy of irvR on a shuttle vector. These data indicate that the repression of irvA is critically dependent upon irvR and that irvA repression is essential for the development of genetic competence and the proper control of DDAG in S. mutans.
PMCID: PMC2580701  PMID: 18757533
14.  Regulation of Bacteriocin Production in Streptococcus mutans by the Quorum-Sensing System Required for Development of Genetic Competence 
Journal of Bacteriology  2005;187(12):3980-3989.
In Streptococcus mutans, competence for genetic transformation and biofilm formation are dependent on the two-component signal transduction system ComDE together with the inducer peptide pheromone competence-stimulating peptide (CSP) (encoded by comC). Here, it is shown that the same system is also required for expression of the nlmAB genes, which encode a two-peptide nonlantibiotic bacteriocin. Expression from a transcriptional nlmAB′-lacZ fusion was highest at high cell density and was increased up to 60-fold following addition of CSP, but it was abolished when the comDE genes were interrupted. Two more genes, encoding another putative bacteriocin and a putative bacteriocin immunity protein, were also regulated by this system. The regions upstream of these genes and of two further putative bacteriocin-encoding genes and a gene encoding a putative bacteriocin immunity protein contained a conserved 9-bp repeat element just upstream of the transcription start, which suggests that expression of these genes is also dependent on the ComCDE regulatory system. Mutations in the repeat element of the nlmAB promoter region led to a decrease in CSP-dependent expression of nlmAB′-lacZ. In agreement with these results, a comDE mutant and mutants unable to synthesize or export CSP did not produce bacteriocins. It is speculated that, at high cell density, bacteriocin production is induced to liberate DNA from competing streptococci.
PMCID: PMC1151730  PMID: 15937160
15.  Subpopulation-Specific Transcriptome Analysis of Competence-Stimulating-Peptide-Induced Streptococcus mutans▿† 
Journal of Bacteriology  2011;193(8):1863-1877.
Competence-stimulating-peptide (CSP)-mediated competence development in Streptococcus mutans is a transient and biphasic process, since only a subpopulation induces the expression of ComX in the presence of CSP, and the activation of the DNA uptake machinery in this fraction shuts down ∼3 to 4 h postinduction. Here, we combine for the first time, to our knowledge, the bacterial flow-cytometric sorting of cells and subpopulation-specific transcriptome analysis of both the competent and noncompetent fraction of CSP-treated S. mutans cells. Sorting was guided by a ComX-green fluorescent protein (ComX-GFP) reporter, and the transcriptome analysis demonstrated the successful combination of both methods, because a strong enrichment of transcripts for comX and its downstream genes was achieved. Three two-component systems were expressed in the competent fraction, and among them was ComDE. Moreover, the recently identified regulator system ComR/S was expressed exclusively in the competent fraction. In contrast, the expression of bacteriocin-related genes was at the same level in all cells. GFP reporter strains for ComE and CipB (mutacin V) confirmed this expression pattern on the single-cell level. Fluorescence microscopy revealed that some ComX-expressing cells committed autolysis in an early stage of competence initiation. In viable ComX-expressing cells, the uptake of DNA could be shown on the single-cell level. This study demonstrates that all cells in the population respond to CSP through the activation of bacteriocin-related genes. Some of these cells start to activate ComX expression but then segregate into two subpopulations, one becoming competent and another one that lyses, resulting in intrapopulation diversity.
PMCID: PMC3133041  PMID: 21317319
16.  Nucleotide sequence and genetic organization of the Bacillus subtilis comG operon. 
Journal of Bacteriology  1989;171(10):5386-5404.
A series of Tn917lac insertions define the comG region of the Bacillus subtilis chromosome. comG mutants are deficient in competence and specifically in the binding of exogenous DNA. The genes included in the comG region are first expressed during the transition from the exponential to the stationary growth phase. From nucleotide sequence information, it was concluded that the comG locus contains seven open reading frames (ORFs), several of which overlap at their termini. High-resolution S1 nuclease mapping and primer extension were used to identify the 5' terminus of the comG mRNA. The sequence upstream from the comG start site closely resembled the consensus recognition sequence for the major B. subtilis vegetative RNA polymerase holoenzyme. Complementation analysis confirmed that the comG ORF1 protein is required for the ability of competent cultures to resolve into two populations with different cell densities on Renografin (E. R. Squibb & Sons, Princeton, N.J.) gradients, as well as for full expression of comE, another late competence locus. The predicted comG ORF1 protein showed significant similarity to the virB ORF11 protein from Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which is probably involved in T-DNA transfer. The N-terminal sequences of comG ORF3 and, to a lesser extent, the comG ORF4 and ORF5 proteins were similar to a class of pilin proteins from members of the genera Bacteroides, Pseudomonas, Neisseria, and Moraxella. All of the comG proteins except comG ORF1 possessed hydrophobic domains that were potentially capable of spanning the bacterial membrane. It is likely that these proteins are membrane associated, and they may comprise part of the DNA transport machinery. When present in multiple copies, a DNA fragment carrying the comG promoter was capable of inhibiting the development of competence as well as the expression of several late com genes, suggesting a role for a transcriptional activator in the expression of those genes.
PMCID: PMC210376  PMID: 2507524
17.  Structural insights into the dimerization of the response regulator ComE from Streptococcus pneumoniae 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;42(8):5302-5313.
Natural transformation contributes to the maintenance and to the evolution of the bacterial genomes. In Streptococcus pneumoniae, this function is reached by achieving the competence state, which is under the control of the ComD−ComE two-component system. We present the crystal and solution structures of ComE. We mimicked the active and non-active states by using the phosphorylated mimetic ComED58E and the unphosphorylatable ComED58A mutants. In the crystal, full-length ComED58A dimerizes through its canonical REC receiver domain but with an atypical mode, which is also adopted by the isolated RECD58A and RECD58E. The LytTR domain adopts a tandem arrangement consistent with the two direct repeats of its promoters. However ComED58A is monomeric in solution, as seen by SAXS, by contrast to ComED58E that dimerizes. For both, a relative mobility between the two domains is assumed. Based on these results we propose two possible ways for activation of ComE by phosphorylation.
PMCID: PMC4005675  PMID: 24500202
18.  Pherotype Influences Biofilm Growth and Recombination in Streptococcus pneumoniae 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(3):e92138.
In Streptococcus pneumoniae the competence-stimulating peptide (CSP), encoded by the comC gene, controls competence development and influences biofilm growth. We explored the influence of pherotype, defined by the two major comC allelic variants (comC1 and comC2), on biofilm development and recombination efficiency. Among isolates recovered from human infections those presenting comC1 show a higher capacity to form in vitro biofilms. The influence of pherotype on biofilm growth was confirmed by experiments with isogenic strains differing in their comC alleles. Biofilm architecture evaluated by confocal laser scanning microscopy showed that strains carrying comC1 form biofilms that are denser and thicker than those carrying the comC2 allele. Isogenic strains carrying the comC1 allele yielded more transformants than those carrying the comC2 allele in both planktonic and biofilm growth. Transformation assays with comC knockout strains show that ComD1 needs lower doses of the signaling peptide to reach the same biological outcomes. In contrast to mixed planktonic growth, within mixed biofilms inter-pherotype genetic exchange is less frequent than that occurring between bacteria of the same pherotype. Since biofilms are a major bacterial lifestyle, these observations may explain the genetic differentiation between populations with different pherotypes reported previously. Considering that biofilms have been associated with colonization our results suggest that strains carrying the comC1 allele may be more transmissible and more efficient at persisting in carriage. Both effects may help explain the higher prevalence of the comC1 allele in the pneumococcal population.
PMCID: PMC3960169  PMID: 24646937
19.  Structural Basis of Rap Phosphatase Inhibition by Phr Peptides 
PLoS Biology  2013;11(3):e1001511.
A structural and functional study shows the molecular mechanism of Rap protein inhibition by Phr signaling peptides, providing new insights into peptide recognition and discrimination in quorum sensing.
Two-component systems, composed of a sensor histidine kinase and an effector response regulator (RR), are the main signal transduction devices in bacteria. In Bacillus, the Rap protein family modulates complex signaling processes mediated by two-component systems, such as competence, sporulation, or biofilm formation, by inhibiting the RR components involved in these pathways. Despite the high degree of sequence homology, Rap proteins exert their activity by two completely different mechanisms of action: inducing RR dephosphorylation or blocking RR binding to its target promoter. However the regulatory mechanism involving Rap proteins is even more complex since Rap activity is antagonized by specific signaling peptides (Phr) through a mechanism that remains unknown at the molecular level. Using X-ray analyses, we determined the structure of RapF, the anti-activator of competence RR ComA, alone and in complex with its regulatory peptide PhrF. The structural and functional data presented herein reveal that peptide PhrF blocks the RapF-ComA interaction through an allosteric mechanism. PhrF accommodates in the C-terminal tetratricopeptide repeat domain of RapF by inducing its constriction, a conformational change propagated by a pronounced rotation to the N-terminal ComA-binding domain. This movement partially disrupts the ComA binding site by triggering the ComA disassociation, whose interaction with RapF is also sterically impaired in the PhrF-induced conformation of RapF. Sequence analyses of the Rap proteins, guided by the RapF-PhrF structure, unveil the molecular basis of Phr recognition and discrimination, allowing us to relax the Phr specificity of RapF by a single residue change.
Author Summary
In microorganisms, two component signaling systems are widely used to sense and respond to environmental changes, including quorum-sensing of Phr oligopeptides. Although the minimal machinery required for these systems comprises a sensor histidine kinase and an effector response regulator (RR), ancillary proteins, termed “connectors,” capable of modulating the activity of this machinery, are emerging as additional players in this complex signaling process. Rap proteins are archetypal connectors, able to modulate the activity of RRs either by dephosphorylating them or by physically blocking them. Rap proteins are themselves in turn inhibited by specific Phr peptides, adding an extra level of complexity, but how a Rap protein is regulated by its cognate Phr peptide remains unknown. To answer this question, we solved the structure of RapF, a Rap family member that blocks RR ComA, alone and in the complex with its inhibitory peptide PhrF. Our structural and functional results reveal that PhrF blocks the RapF-ComA interaction by an allosteric mechanism since the PhrF-RapF interaction induces a conformational change that is propagated to the the ComA binding site, disrupting it and triggering the dissociation of ComA from RapF. Using sequence analysis guided by our structure, we pinpointed sets of residues responsible for peptide anchor and specificity, respectively, and were able to relax RapF-Phr specificity simply by changing a single residue. Knowledge of these key residues and the Rap inhibition mechanism opens up the possibility of re-engineering Rap proteins, and paves the way to reprogramming signaling pathways for biological and biotechnological applications.
PMCID: PMC3601957  PMID: 23526880
20.  Structural Basis of Response Regulator Inhibition by a Bacterial Anti-Activator Protein 
PLoS Biology  2011;9(12):e1001226.
Structure-function studies reveal that Rap proteins have distinct, nonoverlapping surfaces that interact with different cellular targets, and that for antiactivator RapF, one surface mimics DNA to bind a response regulator DNA binding domain, thereby sterically preventing the activity of this transcription transactivator.
The complex interplay between the response regulator ComA, the anti-activator RapF, and the signaling peptide PhrF controls competence development in Bacillus subtilis. More specifically, ComA drives the expression of genetic competence genes, while RapF inhibits the interaction of ComA with its target promoters. The signaling peptide PhrF accumulates at high cell density and upregulates genetic competence by antagonizing the interaction of RapF and ComA. How RapF functions mechanistically to inhibit ComA activity and how PhrF in turn antagonizes the RapF-ComA interaction were unknown. Here we present the X-ray crystal structure of RapF in complex with the ComA DNA binding domain. Along with biochemical and genetic studies, the X-ray crystal structure reveals how RapF mechanistically regulates ComA function. Interestingly, we found that a RapF surface mimics DNA to block ComA binding to its target promoters. Furthermore, RapF is a monomer either alone or in complex with PhrF, and it undergoes a conformational change upon binding to PhrF, which likely causes the dissociation of ComA from the RapF-ComA complex. Finally, we compare the structure of RapF complexed with the ComA DNA binding domain and the structure of RapH complexed with Spo0F. This comparison reveals that RapF and RapH have strikingly similar overall structures, and that they have evolved different, non-overlapping surfaces to interact with diverse cellular targets. To our knowledge, the data presented here reveal the first atomic level insight into the inhibition of response regulator DNA binding by an anti-activator. Compounds that affect the interaction of Rap and Rap-like proteins with their target domains could serve to regulate medically and commercially important phenotypes in numerous Bacillus species, such as sporulation in B. anthracis and sporulation and the production of Cry protein endotoxin in B. thuringiensis.
Author Summary
Upon phosphorylation, bacterial proteins called response regulators bind to DNA promoters and activate or repress transcription. These response regulators are themselves regulated by anti-activator proteins, which can control response regulator activity without altering their phosphorylation state. We have determined the X-ray crystal structure of the anti-activator RapF complexed with the DNA-binding domain of the response regulator ComA. Our structure-function studies show that RapF disrupts the binding of ComA to DNA using a two-pronged mechanism. First, a RapF surface mimics DNA, and this DNA-like surface binds to nearly all of the ComA DNA-binding residues, thus blocking ComA's interaction with DNA. Second, RapF inhibits ComA dimerization. RapF is also regulated by the PhrF peptide; we find that the RapF-ComA interaction surface is distant from the proposed PhrF binding site. Furthermore, we found that RapF undergoes a conformational change upon binding to PhrF, which likely causes its dissociation from ComA. From these observations, we conclude that PhrF binding to RapF allosterically triggers its dissociation from ComA. Finally, we compared the RapF/ComA DNA-binding domain complex structure with the structure of another response regulator, Spo0F, complexed with the phosphatase RapH. This reveals that while RapF and RapH are structurally similar, they have evolved distinct, non-overlapping surfaces to interact with their different cellular targets.
PMCID: PMC3246441  PMID: 22215984
21.  Peptide-Regulated Gene Depletion System Developed for Use in Streptococcus pneumoniae▿ 
Journal of Bacteriology  2011;193(19):5207-5215.
To facilitate the study of pneumococcal genes that are essential for viability or normal cell growth, we sought to develop a tightly regulated, titratable gene depletion system that interferes minimally with normal cellular functions. A possible candidate for such a system is the recently discovered signal transduction pathway regulating competence for natural transformation in Streptococcus thermophilus. This pathway, which is unrelated to the ComCDE pathway used for competence regulation in Streptococcus pneumoniae, has not been fully elucidated, but it is known to include a short unmodified signaling peptide, ComS*, an oligopeptide transport system, Ami, and a transcriptional activator, ComR. The transcriptional activator is thought to bind to an inverted repeat sequence termed the ECom box. We introduced the ComR protein and the ECom box into the genome of S. pneumoniae R6 and demonstrated that addition of synthetic ComS* peptide induced the transcription of a luciferase gene inserted downstream of the ECom box. To determine whether the ComRS system could be used for gene depletion studies, the licD1 gene was inserted behind the chromosomally located ECom box promoter by using the Janus cassette. Then, the native versions of licD1 and licD2 were deleted, and the resulting mutant was recovered in the presence of ComS*. Cultivation of the licD1 licD2 double mutant in the absence of ComS* gradually affected its ability to grow and propagate, demonstrating that the ComRS system functions as intended. In the present study, the ComRS system was developed for use in S. pneumoniae. In principle, however, it should work equally well in many other Gram-positive species.
PMCID: PMC3187432  PMID: 21804004
22.  Identification and Characterization of ComE and ComF, Two Novel Pilin-Like Competence Factors Involved in Natural Transformation of Acinetobacter sp. Strain BD413 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  1999;65(10):4568-4574.
Although the high level of competence for natural transformation of Acinetobacter sp. strain BD413 has been the subject of numerous studies, only two competence genes, comC and comP, have been identified to date. By chromosomal walking analysis we found two overlapping open reading frames, designated comE and comF, starting 61 bp downstream of comC. comE and comF are expressed as stable proteins in Escherichia coli, thus proving that they are indeed coding regions, but expression was successful only with 5′-deleted genes. ComE and ComF are similar to pilins and pilin-like components. Both genes were mutated, and the phenotypes of the mutants were analyzed. Natural transformation in comF mutants is 1,000-fold reduced, whereas comE mutants exhibit 10-fold-reduced transformation frequencies. This is clear evidence that comE and comF are involved in natural transformation. However, ComE and ComF are specific for DNA translocation, since comE and comF defects affected neither piliation nor lipase secretion. These results suggest that the type IV pili, the general protein secretion pathway, and the DNA translocation machinery in Acinetobacter sp. strain BD413 are evolutionary related but functionally distinct systems.
PMCID: PMC91608  PMID: 10508090
23.  Two Separate Quorum-Sensing Systems Upregulate Transcription of the Same ABC Transporter in Streptococcus pneumoniae 
Journal of Bacteriology  2004;186(10):3078-3085.
Streptococcus pneumoniae secretes two different peptide pheromones used for intercellular communication. These peptides, which have completely unrelated primary structures, activate two separate signal transduction pathways, ComABCDE and BlpABCSRH, which regulate natural genetic transformation and bacteriocin production, respectively. Each signal transduction pathway contains a response regulator (ComE and BlpR, respectively) that activates transcription of target genes by binding to similar, but not identical, imperfect direct repeat motifs. In general the direct repeat binding sites are specific for one or the other of the two response regulators, ensuring that competence development and bacteriocin production are regulated separately. However, in the present study we show that the rate of transcription of an operon, encoding an ABC transporter of unknown function, can be stimulated by both peptide pheromones. We also show that this cross-induction is due to a hybrid direct repeat motif that can respond to both ComE and BlpR. To our knowledge this kind of convergent gene regulation by two separate two-component regulatory systems has not been described before in bacteria.
PMCID: PMC400622  PMID: 15126469
24.  A Cysteine-Rich CCG Domain Contains a Novel [4Fe-4S] Cluster Binding Motif As Deduced from Studies with Subunit B of Heterodisulfide Reductase from Methanothermobacter marburgensis† 
Biochemistry  2007;46(44):12875-12885.
Heterodisulfide reductase (HDR) of methanogenic archaea with its active-site [4Fe-4S] cluster catalyzes the reversible reduction of the heterodisulfide (CoM-S-S-CoB) of the methanogenic coenzyme M (CoM-SH) and coenzyme B (CoB-SH). CoM-HDR, a mechanistic-based paramagnetic intermediate generated upon half-reaction of the oxidized enzyme with CoM-SH, is a novel type of [4Fe-4S]3+ cluster with CoM-SH as a ligand. Subunit HdrB of the Methanothermobacter marburgensis HdrABC holoenzyme contains two cysteine-rich sequence motifs (CX31–39CCX35–36CXXC), designated as CCG domain in the Pfam database and conserved in many proteins. Here we present experimental evidence that the C-terminal CCG domain of HdrB binds this unusual [4Fe-4S] cluster. HdrB was produced in Escherichia coli, and an iron–sulfur cluster was subsequently inserted by in vitro reconstitution. In the oxidized state the cluster without the substrate exhibited a rhombic EPR signal (gzyx= 2.015, 1.995, and 1.950) reminiscent of the CoM-HDR signal. 57Fe ENDOR spectroscopy revealed that this paramagnetic species is a [4Fe-4S] cluster with 57Fe hyperfine couplings very similar to that of CoM-HDR. CoM-33SH resulted in a broadening of the EPR signal, and upon addition of CoM-SH the midpoint potential of the cluster was shifted to values observed for CoM-HDR, both indicating binding of CoM-SH to the cluster. Site-directed mutagenesis of all 12 cysteine residues in HdrB identified four cysteines of the C-terminal CCG domain as cluster ligands. Combined with the previous detection of CoM-HDR-like EPR signals in other CCG domain-containing proteins our data indicate a general role of the C-terminal CCG domain in coordination of this novel [4Fe-4S] cluster. In addition, Zn K-edge X-ray absorption spectroscopy identified an isolated Zn site with an S3(O/N)1 geometry in HdrB and the HDR holoenzyme. The N-terminal CCG domain is suggested to provide ligands to the Zn site.
PMCID: PMC3543786  PMID: 17929940
25.  Streptococcus pseudopneumoniae Identification by Pherotype: a Method To Assist Understanding of a Potentially Emerging or Overlooked Pathogen 
Journal of Clinical Microbiology  2012;50(5):1684-1690.
The recent identification of Streptococcus pseudopneumoniae (pseudopneumococcus) has complicated classification schemes within members of the “mitis” streptococcal group. Accurate differentiation of this species is necessary for understanding its disease potential and identification in clinical settings. This work described the use of the competence-stimulatory peptide ComC sequence for identification of S. pseudopneumoniae. ComC sequences from clinical sources were determined for 17 strains of S. pseudopneumoniae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Streptococcus oralis. An additional 58 ComC sequences from a range of sources were included to understand the diversity and suitability of this protein as a diagnostic marker for species identification. We identified three pherotypes for this species, delineated CSP6.1 (10/14, 79%), CSP6.3 (3/14, 21%), and SK674 (1/14, 7%). Pseudopneumococcal ComC sequences formed a discrete cluster within those of other oral streptococci. This suggests that the comC sequence could be used to identify S. pseudopneumoniae, thus simplifying the study of the pathogenic potential of this organism. To avoid confusion between pneumococcal and pseudopneumococcal pherotypes, we have renamed the competence pherotype CSP6.1, formerly reported as an “atypical” pneumococcus, CSPps1 to reflect its occurrence in S. pseudopneumoniae.
PMCID: PMC3347113  PMID: 22378913

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