Crystallographic, biochemical, and genetic studies reveal the mechanism of Rap protein phosphatase activity within the phosphorelay pathway leading to sporulation in Bacillus species.
Bacterial Rap family proteins have been most extensively studied in Bacillus subtilis, where they regulate activities including sporulation, genetic competence, antibiotic expression, and the movement of the ICEBs1 transposon. One subset of Rap proteins consists of phosphatases that control B. subtilis and B. anthracis sporulation by dephosphorylating the response regulator Spo0F. The mechanistic basis of Rap phosphatase activity was unknown. Here we present the RapH-Spo0F X-ray crystal structure, which shows that Rap proteins consist of a 3-helix bundle and a tetratricopeptide repeat domain. Extensive biochemical and genetic functional studies reveal the importance of the observed RapH-Spo0F interactions, including the catalytic role of a glutamine in the RapH 3-helix bundle that inserts into the Spo0F active site. We show that in addition to dephosphorylating Spo0F, RapH can antagonize sporulation by sterically blocking phosphoryl transfer to and from Spo0F. Our structure-function analysis of the RapH-Spo0F interaction identified Rap protein residues critical for Spo0F phosphatase activity. This information enabled us to assign Spo0F phosphatase activity to a Rap protein based on sequence alone, which was not previously possible. Finally, as the ultimate test of our newfound understanding of the structural requirements for Rap phosphatase function, a non-phosphatase Rap protein that inhibits the binding of the response regulator ComA to DNA was rationally engineered to dephosphorylate Spo0F. In addition to revealing the mechanistic basis of response regulator dephosphorylation by Rap proteins, our studies support the previously proposed T-loop-Y allostery model of receiver domain regulation that restricts the aromatic “switch” residue to an internal position when the β4-α4 loop adopts an active-site proximal conformation.
A phosphorelay signal transduction pathway regulates sporulation in numerous Bacillus species including the genetic model organism, B. subtilis, and the causative agent of anthrax, B. anthracis. Histidine kinases initiate the flow of phosphoryl groups along the phosphorelay pathway, which then shuttles them to a downstream response-regulator transcription factor called Spo0A. Ultimately, sporulation is governed by the cellular concentration of phosphorylated Spo0A. In numerous Bacillus species, Rap phosphatases function in opposition to the histidine kinases, inhibiting Spo0A activation by dephosphorylating an intermediate pathway protein called Spo0F. Here we present the structure of a Rap protein, RapH, in complex with Spo0F, as determined by X-ray crystallography. The RapH–Spo0F structure, along with biochemical and genetic studies, reveals the mechanism of Rap-protein-mediated Spo0F dephosphorylation. We used information gleaned from our structure–function analysis, first, to assign Spo0F phosphatase activity to an uncharacterized Rap protein, RapJ, on the basis of sequence alone, and, second, to engineer Spo0F phosphatase activity de novo into a non-phosphatase Rap protein, RapF. We found that in addition to dephosphorylating Spo0F, Rap proteins can inhibit the sporulation phosphorelay by sterically blocking the transfer of phosphoryl groups to and from Spo0F. Ultimately, new classes of drugs might be developed that disrupt the flow of phosphoryl groups along phosphotransfer signaling pathways by mimicking the antagonistic effects of Rap proteins on response regulators.