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.
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.