An 8,883-bp mini-pXO1 plasmid containing a replicon from Bacillus anthracis pXO1 (181.6 kb) was identified by making large deletions in the original plasmid using a newly developed Cre-loxP system. Portions of the truncated mini-pXO1 were cloned into an Escherichia coli vector unable to replicate in B. anthracis. A 5.95-kb region encompassing three putative genes was identified as the minimal pXO1 fragment required for replication of the resulting recombinant shuttle plasmid (named pMR) in B. anthracis. Deletion analysis showed that the only genes essential for replication were the pXO1-14 and pXO1-16 genes, which are transcribed in opposite directions and encode predicted proteins of 66.5 and 67.1 kDa, respectively. The ORF14 protein contains a helix-turn-helix motif, while the ORF16 upstream region contains attributes of a theta-replicating plasmid origin of replication (Ori), namely, an exclusively A+T-containing segment, five 9-bp direct repeats, an inverted repeat, and a σA-dependent promoter for the putative replication initiator Rep protein (ORF16). Spontaneous mutations generated in the ORF14, ORF16, and Ori regions of pMR during PCR amplification produced a temperature-sensitive plasmid that is unable to replicate in B. anthracis at 37°C. The efficacy of transformation of plasmid-free B. anthracis Ames and Sterne strains by the original pMR was ∼103 CFU/μg, while Bacillus cereus strains 569 and ATCC 10987 were transformed with efficiencies of 104 and 102 CFU/μg, respectively. Around 95% of B. anthracis cells retained pMR after one round of sporulation and germination.
Virulent and certain avirulent strains of Bacillus anthracis harbor a plasmid, designated pXO2, which is involved in the synthesis of capsules. Two classes of rough, noncapsulated (Cap-) variants were isolated from the capsule-producing (Cap+) Pasteur vaccine strains ATCC 6602 and ATCC 4229. One class was cured of pXO2, and the other class still carried it. Reversion to Cap+ was demonstrable only in rough variants which had retained pXO2. Proof that pXO2 is involved in capsule synthesis came from experiments in which the plasmid was transferred by CP-51-mediated transduction and by a mating system in which plasmid transfer is mediated by a Bacillus thuringiensis fertility plasmid, pXO12. Cells of Bacillus cereus and a previously noncapsulated (pXO2-) strain of B. anthracis produced capsules after the acquisition of pXO2.
The secretomes of a virulent Bacillus anthracis strain and of avirulent strains (cured of the virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2), cultured in rich and minimal media, were studied by a comparative proteomic approach. More than 400 protein spots, representing the products of 64 genes, were identified, and a unique pattern of protein relative abundance with respect to the presence of the virulence plasmids was revealed. In minimal medium under high CO2 tension, conditions considered to simulate those encountered in the host, the presence of the plasmids leads to enhanced expression of 12 chromosome-carried genes (10 of which could not be detected in the absence of the plasmids) in addition to expression of 5 pXO1-encoded proteins. Furthermore, under these conditions, the presence of the pXO1 and pXO2 plasmids leads to the repression of 14 chromosomal genes. On the other hand, in minimal aerobic medium not supplemented with CO2, the virulent and avirulent B. anthracis strains manifest very similar protein signatures, and most strikingly, two proteins (the metalloproteases InhA1 and NprB, orthologs of gene products attributed to the Bacillus cereus group PlcR regulon) represent over 90% of the total secretome. Interestingly, of the 64 identified gene products, at least 31 harbor features characteristic of virulence determinants (such as toxins, proteases, nucleotidases, sulfatases, transporters, and detoxification factors), 22 of which are differentially regulated in a plasmid-dependent manner. The nature and the expression patterns of proteins in the various secretomes suggest that distinct CO2-responsive chromosome- and plasmid-encoded regulatory factors modulate the secretion of potential novel virulence factors, most of which are associated with extracellular proteolytic activities.
The transfer of plasmids by mating from four Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies to Bacillus anthracis and Bacillus cereus recipients was monitored by selecting transcipients which acquired plasmid pBC16 (Tcr). Transcipients also inherited a specific large plasmid from each B. thuringiensis donor at a high frequency along with a random array of smaller plasmids. The large plasmids (ca. 50 to 120 megadaltons), pXO13, pXO14, pXO15, and pXO16, originating from B. thuringiensis subsp. morrisoni, B. thuringiensis subsp. toumanoffi, B. thuringiensis subsp. alesti, and B. thuringiensis subsp. israelensis, respectively, were demonstrated to be responsible for plasmid mobilization. Transcipients containing any of the above plasmids had donor capability, while B. thuringiensis strains cured of each of them were not fertile, indicating that the plasmids confer conjugation functions. Confirmation that pXO13, pXO14, and pXO16 were self-transmissible was obtained by the isolation of fertile B. anthracis and B. cereus transcipients that contained only pBC16 and one of these plasmids. pXO14 was efficient in mobilizing the toxin and capsule plasmids, pXO1 and pXO2, respectively, from B. anthracis transcipients to plasmid-cured B. anthracis or B. cereus recipients. DNA-DNA hybridization experiments suggested that DNA homology exists among pXO13, pXO14, and the B. thuringiensis subsp. thuringiensis conjugative plasmids pXO11 and pXO12. Matings performed between strains which each contained the same conjugative plasmid demonstrated reduced efficiency of pBC16 transfer. However, in many instances when donor and recipient strains contained different conjugative plasmids, the efficiency of pBC16 transfer appeared to be enhanced.
The large plasmid pXO1 encoding the anthrax toxin is important for the virulence of Bacillus anthracis. It is essential to cure pXO1 from B. anthracis to evaluate its role in the pathogenesis of anthrax infection. Because conventional methods for curing plasmids (e.g., curing agents or growth at elevated temperatures) can induce mutations in the host chromosomal DNA, we developed a specific and reliable method to eliminate pXO1 from B. anthracis using plasmid incompatibility. Three putative replication origins of pXO1 were inserted into a temperature-sensitive plasmid to generate three incompatible plasmids. One of the three plasmids successfully eliminated the large plasmid pXO1 from B. anthracis vaccine strain A16R and wild type strain A16. These findings provided additional information about the replication/partitioning of pXO1 and demonstrated that introducing a small incompatible plasmid can generate plasmid-cured strains of B. anthracis without inducing spontaneous mutations in the host chromosome.
To facilitate the analysis of genetic determinants carried by large resident plasmids of Bacillus anthracis, a mating system was developed which promotes plasmid transfer among strains of B. anthracis, B. cereus, and B. thuringiensis. Transfer of the selectable tetracycline resistance plasmid pBC16 and other plasmids from B. thuringiensis to B. anthracis and B. cereus recipients occurred during mixed incubation in broth. Two plasmids, pXO11 and pXO12, found in B. thuringiensis were responsible for plasmid mobilization. B. anthracis and B. cereus transcipients inheriting either pXO11 or pXO12 were, in turn, effective donors. Transcipients harboring pXO12 were more efficient donors than those harboring pXO11; transfer frequencies ranged from 10(-4) to 10(-1) and from 10(-8) to 10(-5), respectively. Cell-to-cell contact was necessary for plasmid transfer, and the addition of DNase had no effect. The high frequencies of transfer, along with the fact that cell-free filtrates of donor cultures were ineffective, suggested that transfer was not phage mediated. B. anthracis and B. cereus transcipients which inherited pXO12 also acquired the ability to produce parasporal crystals (Cry+) resembling those produced by B. thuringiensis, indicating that pXO12 carries a gene(s) involved in crystal formation. Transcipients which inherited pXO11 were Cry-. This mating system provides an efficient method for interspecies transfer of a large range of Bacillus plasmids by a conjugation-like process.
Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, secretes numerous proteins into the extracellular environment during infection. A comparative proteomic approach was employed to elucidate the differences among the extracellular proteomes (secretomes) of three isogenic strains of B. anthracis that differed solely in their plasmid contents. The strains utilized were the wild-type virulent B. anthracis RA3 (pXO1+ pXO2+) and its two nonpathogenic derivative strains: the toxigenic, nonencapsulated RA3R (pXO1+ pXO2−) and the totally cured, nontoxigenic, nonencapsulated RA3:00 (pXO1− pXO2−). Comparative proteomics using two-dimensional gel electrophoresis followed by computer-assisted gel image analysis was performed to reveal unique, up-regulated, or down-regulated secretome proteins among the strains. In total, 57 protein spots, representing 26 different proteins encoded on the chromosome or pXO1, were identified by peptide mass fingerprinting. S-layer-derived proteins, such as Sap and EA1, were most frequently observed. Many sporulation-associated enzymes were found to be overexpressed in strains containing pXO1+. This study also provides evidence that pXO2 is necessary for the maximal expression of the pXO1-encoded toxins lethal factor (LF), edema factor (EF), and protective antigen (PA). Several newly identified putative virulence factors were observed; these include enolase, a high-affinity zinc uptake transporter, the peroxide stress-related alkyl hydroperoxide reductase, isocitrate lyase, and the cell surface protein A.
Anthrax toxin and capsule, determinants for successful infection by Bacillus anthracis, are encoded on the virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2, respectively. Each of these plasmids also encodes proteins that are highly homologous to the signal sensor domain of a chromosomally encoded major sporulation sensor histidine kinase (BA2291) in this organism. B. anthracis Sterne overexpressing the plasmid pXO2-61-encoded signal sensor domain exhibited a significant decrease in sporulation that was suppressed by the deletion of the BA2291 gene. Expression of the sensor domains from the pXO1-118 and pXO2-61 genes in Bacillus subtilis strains carrying the B. anthracis sporulation sensor kinase BA2291 gene resulted in BA2291-dependent inhibition of sporulation. These results indicate that sporulation sensor kinase BA2291 is converted from an activator to an inhibitor of sporulation in its native host by the virulence plasmid-encoded signal sensor domains. We speculate that activation of these signal sensor domains contributes to the initiation of B. anthracis sporulation in the bloodstream of its infected host, a salient characteristic in the virulence of this organism, and provides an additional role for the virulence plasmids in anthrax pathogenesis.
Live, attenuated strains of Bacillus anthracis lacking either the capsule plasmid pXO2, the toxin plasmid pXO1, or both were tested for their efficacy as vaccines against intravenous challenge with anthrax toxin in Fischer 344 rats and against aerosol or intramuscular challenge with virulent anthrax spores in Hartley guinea pigs. Animals immunized with toxigenic, nonencapsulated (pXO1+, pXO2-) strains survived toxin and spore challenge and demonstrated postimmunization antibody titers to the three components of anthrax toxin (protective antigen, lethal factor, and edema factor). Immunization with two nontoxigenic, encapsulated (pXO1-, pXO2+), Pasteur vaccine strains neither provided protection nor elicited titers to any of the toxin components. Therefore, to immunize successfully against anthrax toxin or spore challenge, attenuated, live strains of B. anthracis must produce the toxin components specified by the pXO1 plasmid.
Fully virulent Bacillus anthracis bacilli are encapsulated and toxinogenic. These bacteria contain two plasmids, pXO1 and pXO2, carrying genes coding for toxins (pag, lef, and cya) and for capsule synthetic enzymes (capB, capC, capA, and dep), respectively. A transcriptional fusion between the capB regulatory region and the lacZ reporter gene was constructed to study the regulation of capsule synthesis. A single copy of this fusion was inserted into the cap region of pXO2. The influence of environmental factors on the capB-lacZ fusion expression was initially analyzed in a pXO1-negative background: bicarbonate but not temperature induced the transcription from the capB promoter. A strain carrying the recombinant pXO2 and (delta)pag pXO1 was constructed for transregulatory studies. The pXO1 plasmid strongly enhanced capsule formation without modifying the bicarbonate-dependent induction level. A (delta)cap pXO2 was transduced into a strain containing pXO1 harboring a pag-lacZ transcriptional fusion (19). pXO2 showed no influence on the toxin gene transcription.
The self-transmissible plasmid pXO12 (112.5 kilobases [kb]), originally isolated from strain 4042A of Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. thuringiensis, codes for production of the insecticidal crystal protein (Cry+). The mechanism of pXO12-mediated plasmid transfer was investigated by monitoring the cotransfer of the tetracycline resistance plasmid pBC16 (4.2 kb) and the Bacillus anthracis toxin and capsule plasmids, pXO1 (168 kb) and pXO2 (85.6 kb), respectively. In matings of B. anthracis donors with B. anthracis and Bacillus cereus recipients, the number of Tcr transcipients ranged from 4.8 x 10(4) to 3.9 x 10(6)/ml (frequencies ranged from 1.6 x 10(-4) to 7.1 x 10(-2), and 0.3 to 0.4% of them simultaneously inherited pXO1 or pXO2. Physical analysis of the transferred plasmids suggested that pBC16 was transferred by the process of donation and that the large B. anthracis plasmids were transferred by the process of conduction. The transfer of pXO1 and pXO2 involved the transposition of Tn4430 from pXO12 onto these plasmids. DNA-DNA hybridization experiments demonstrated that Tn4430 was located on a 16.0-kb AvaI fragment of pXO12. Examination of Tra- and Cry- derivatives of pXO12 showed that this fragment also harbored information involved in crystal formation and was adjacent to a restriction fragment containing DNA sequences carrying information required for conjugal transfer.
Bacillus anthracis, the etiologic agent of anthrax, is genetically close to and commonly shares a giant gene pool with B. cereus and B. thuringiensis. In view of the human pathogenicity and the long persistence in the environment of B. anthracis, there is growing concern about the effects of genetic exchange with B. anthracis on public health. In this work, we demonstrate that an insecticidal plasmid, pHT73, from B. thuringiensis strain KT0 could be efficiently transferred into two attenuated B. anthracis strains, Ba63002R (pXO1+ pXO2−) and Ba63605R (pXO1− pXO2+), by conjugation in liquid medium in the laboratory, with transfer rates of 2.3 × 10−4 and 1.6 × 10−4 CFU/donor, respectively. The B. anthracis transconjugants containing both pHT73 and pXO1 or pXO2 could produce crystal protein Cry1Ac encoded by plasmid pHT73 and had high toxicity to Helicoverpa armigera larvae. Furthermore, the compatibility and stability of pHT73 with pXO1/pXO2 were demonstrated. The data are informative for further investigation of the safety of B. thuringiensis and closely related strains in food and in the environment.
Bacillus anthracis strains harboring virulence plasmid pXO1 that encodes the toxin protein protective antigen (PA), lethal factor, and edema factor and virulence plasmid pXO2 that encodes capsule biosynthetic enzymes exhibit different levels of virulence in certain animal models. In the murine model of pulmonary infection, B. anthracis virulence was capsule dependent but toxin independent. We examined the role of toxins in subcutaneous (s.c.) infections using two different genetically complete (pXO1+ pXO2+) strains of B. anthracis, strains Ames and UT500. Similar to findings for the pulmonary model, toxin was not required for infection by the Ames strain, because the 50% lethal dose (LD50) of a PA-deficient (PA−) Ames mutant was identical to that of the parent Ames strain. However, PA was required for efficient s.c. infection by the UT500 strain, because the s.c. LD50 of a UT500 PA− mutant was 10,000-fold higher than the LD50 of the parent UT500 strain. This difference between the Ames strain and the UT500 strain could not be attributed to differences in spore coat properties or the rate of germination, because s.c. inoculation with the capsulated bacillus forms also required toxin synthesis by the UT500 strain to cause lethal infection. The toxin-dependent phenotype of the UT500 strain was host phagocyte dependent, because eliminating Gr-1+ phagocytes restored virulence to the UT500 PA− mutant. These experiments demonstrate that the dominant virulence factors used to establish infection by B. anthracis depend on the route of inoculation and the bacterial strain.
The presence of a pXO1- and/or pXO2-like plasmid(s) in clinical isolates of Bacillus cereus sensu stricto and in strains of the biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis has been reported recently, and the pXO2-like plasmid pBT9727 and another pXO2-like plasmid, pAW63, were found to be conjugative. In this study, a total of 1,000 B. cereus group isolates were analyzed for the presence of pXO1- and pXO2-like replicons and for the presence of pXO2-related conjugative modules. pXO1- and pXO2-like replicons were present in ca. 6.6% and 7.7% of random environmental samples, respectively, and ca. 1.54% of the strains were positive for pXO2-like transfer module genes. Only the strains harboring a pXO2-like replicon also contained the corresponding transfer genes. For the strains which contained a pXO1- and/or pXO2-like replicon(s), a large plasmid(s) whose size was similar to that of pXO1-like and/or pXO2-like plasmids was also observed, but none of these isolates were found to carry the Bacillus anthracis toxin or capsule virulence genes. Furthermore, 17 of 22 pXO2-like plasmids containing the transfer modules were able to self-transfer and to mobilize small plasmids. No pXO1- or pXO2-like plasmid lacking the cognate transfer modules has been found to have transfer potential. In the strains possessing the putative pXO2-like conjugative apparatus, variations in the presence of the group II introns B.th.I.1 and B.th.I.2 were observed, suggesting that there is important flexibility in the conjugation modules and their regulation. There was no consistent correlation between a pXO2-like repA dendrogram and the presence of the tra region or between a virB4 dendrogram and transfer ability. Discrepancies between pXO2-like repA and virB4 dendrograms were also observed, indicating that the evolution of pXO2 is an active process.
Two regulatory genes, acpA and atxA, have been reported to control expression of the Bacillus anthracis capsule biosynthesis operon capBCAD. The atxA gene is located on the virulence plasmid pXO1, while pXO2 carries acpA and the cap genes. acpA has been viewed as the major regulator of the cap operon because it is essential for capsule gene expression in a pXO1− pXO2+ strain. atxA is essential for toxin gene transcription but has also been implicated in control of the cap genes. The molecular functions of the regulatory proteins are unknown. We examined cap gene expression in a genetically complete pXO1+ pXO2+ strain. Our results indicate that another pXO2 gene, acpB (previously called pXO2-53; accession no. NC002146.1:49418-50866), has a role in cap expression. The predicted amino acid sequence of AcpB is 62% similar to that of AcpA and 50% similar to that of AtxA. Assessment of cap gene transcription revealed that cap expression was not affected in a pXO1+ pXO2+ acpB-null mutant and was slightly reduced in an isogenic acpA mutant. However, cap gene expression was abolished in an acpA acpB double mutant. Microscopic examination of capsule synthesis by the mutants corroborated these findings. acpA and acpB expression is controlled by atxA; capsule synthesis and transcription of acpA and acpB were markedly reduced in an atxA mutant. The data suggest that, in a strain containing both virulence plasmids, atxA is the major regulator of capsule synthesis and controls capBCAD expression indirectly, via positive regulation of acpA and acpB.
The complete sequencing and annotation of the 181.7-kb Bacillus anthracis virulence plasmid pXO1 predicted 143 genes but could only assign putative functions to 45. Hybridization assays, PCR amplification, and DNA sequencing were used to determine whether pXO1 open reading frame (ORF) sequences were present in other bacilli and more distantly related bacterial genera. Eighteen Bacillus species isolates and four other bacterial species were tested for the presence of 106 pXO1 ORFs. Three ORFs were conserved in most of the bacteria tested. Many of the pXO1 ORFs were detected in closely related Bacillus species, and some were detected only in B. anthracis isolates. Three isolates, Bacillus cereus D-17, B. cereus 43881, and Bacillus thuringiensis 33679, contained sequences that were similar to more than one-half of the pXO1 ORF sequences examined. The majority of the DNA fragments that were amplified by PCR from these organisms had DNA sequences between 80 and 98% similar to that of pXO1. Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis revealed large potential plasmids present in both B. cereus 43881 (341 kb) and B. thuringiensis ATCC 33679 (327 kb) that hybridized with a DNA probe composed of six pXO1 ORFs.
Real-time PCR has become an important method for the rapid identification of Bacillus anthracis since the 2001 anthrax mailings. Most real-time PCR assays for B. anthracis have been developed to detect virulence genes located on the pXO1 and pXO2 plasmids. In contrast, only two published chromosomal targets exist, the rpoB gene and the gyrA gene. In the present study, subtraction-hybridization with a plasmid-cured B. anthracis tester strain and a Bacillus cereus driver was used to find a unique chromosomal sequence. By targeting this region, a real-time assay was developed with the Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device. Further testing has revealed that the assay has 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, with a limit of detection of 50 fg of DNA. The results of a search for sequences with homology with the BLAST program demonstrated significant alignment to the recently published B. anthracis Ames strain, while an inquiry for protein sequence similarities indicated homology with an abhydrolase from B. anthracis strain A2012. The importance of this chromosomal assay will be to verify the presence of B. anthracis independently of plasmid occurrence.
Control of anthrax toxin and capsule synthesis, the two major virulence factors of Bacillus anthracis, has been associated with two regulatory genes, atxA and acpA, located on virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2, respectively. We used transcriptional profiling to determine whether atxA and/or acpA control genes other than those already described and to investigate functional similarities of the regulators. Transcription was assessed in a pXO1+ pXO2+ parent strain and in isogenic mutants in which one or both regulatory genes were deleted. We determined that in addition to the toxin and capsule genes, atxA controls expression of numerous other genes on both plasmids and the chromosome. Generally, plasmid-encoded genes were more highly regulated than chromosomal genes, and both positive and negative effects were observed. Certain atxA-regulated genes were affected synergistically in an atxA acpA mutant. Yet overall, acpA appears to be a minor regulator with fewer targets than atxA. In contrast to previous reports of acpA function in attenuated strains, acpA had a minimal influence on capsule gene transcription and capsule synthesis in a genetically complete strain. Surprisingly, acpA expression was positively affected by atxA, although atxA-activated capsule gene transcription is not acpA dependent. The newly discovered atxA-regulated targets include genes predicted to encode secreted proteins and proteins with roles in transcriptional regulation and signaling. Regulation of chromosomal genes by atxA is particularly intriguing, given that many of the target genes have homologues in other Bacillus species that lack atxA homologues. Given the global effect of atxA on gene expression in B. anthracis, previous assumptions regarding reduced virulence of strains harboring single plasmids must be reassessed and the potential roles of newly identified atxA-regulated genes should be investigated.
Several circulating Bacillus anthracis strains isolated in Italy and belonging to the A1.a cluster, genotype 3 (A1.a-3) are genotypically indistinguishable from Carbosap, a live attenuated vaccine strain, containing both pXO1 and pXO2 plasmids. The genotype was assessed by using eight-locus multilocus variable-number tandem repeat analysis. We describe here the use of a ninth locus able to explore variability among strains that have the same genotype. It is important to be able to genotype the wild isolate of B. anthracis strains from outbreaks of anthrax in areas where Carbosap vaccination of cattle and sheep is common practice. A total of 27 representative field strains isolated in Italy and four vaccinal strains, namely, Carbosap, Sterne, Pasteur I, and Pasteur II, were characterized by a ninth marker, called pXO2-A. Twenty-three field strains were genotype 3 and therefore identical to Carbosap. The marker was in the pXO2 plasmid and is based on the polymorphism of the already-known VX2-3 locus. Detection was obtained by PCR with fluorescence-labeled forward primers in order to produce appropriate fragments for capillary electrophoresis with an ABI 310 genetic analyzer. Genetic relationships showed heterogeneity in all of the examined samples. Interestingly, with respect to genotype 3, samples grouped into eight different subtypes, A to H, and the subtype G, had only two samples indistinguishable from Carbosap. The results of the present study confirm the validity of a hierarchical progressive protocol for discrimination among closely related isolates.
The Bacillus anthracis Sterne plasmid pXO1 was sequenced by random, “shotgun” cloning. A circular sequence of 181,654 bp was generated. One hundred forty-three open reading frames (ORFs) were predicted using GeneMark and GeneMark.hmm, comprising only 61% (110,817 bp) of the pXO1 DNA sequence. The overall guanine-plus-cytosine content of the plasmid is 32.5%. The most recognizable feature of the plasmid is a “pathogenicity island,” defined by a 44.8-kb region that is bordered by inverted IS1627 elements at each end. This region contains the three toxin genes (cya, lef, and pagA), regulatory elements controlling the toxin genes, three germination response genes, and 19 additional ORFs. Nearly 70% of the ORFs on pXO1 do not have significant similarity to sequences available in open databases. Absent from the pXO1 sequence are homologs to genes that are typically required to drive theta replication and to maintain stability of large plasmids in Bacillus spp. Among the ORFs with a high degree of similarity to known sequences are a collection of putative transposases, resolvases, and integrases, suggesting an evolution involving lateral movement of DNA among species. Among the remaining ORFs, there are three sequences that may encode enzymes responsible for the synthesis of a polysaccharide capsule usually associated with serotype-specific virulent streptococci.
Bacillus cereus is ubiquitous in nature, and while most isolates appear to be harmless, some are associated with food-borne illnesses, periodontal diseases, and other more serious infections. In one such infection, B. cereus G9241 was identified as the causative agent of a severe pneumonia in a Louisiana welder in 1994. This isolate was found to harbor most of the B. anthracis virulence plasmid pXO1 (13). Here we report the characterization of two clinical and one environmental B. cereus isolate collected during an investigation of two fatal pneumonia cases in Texas metal workers. Molecular subtyping revealed that the two cases were not caused by the same strain. However, one of the three isolates was indistinguishable from B. cereus G9241. PCR analysis demonstrated that both clinical isolates contained B. anthracis pXO1 toxin genes. One clinical isolate and the environmental isolate collected from that victim's worksite contained the cap A, B, and C genes required for capsule biosynthesis in B. anthracis. Both clinical isolates expressed a capsule; however, neither was composed of poly-d-glutamic acid. Although most B. cereus isolates are not opportunistic pathogens and only a limited number cause food-borne illnesses, these results demonstrate that some B. cereus strains can cause severe and even fatal infections in patients who appear to be otherwise healthy.
Bacillus anthracis contains two megaplasmids, pXO1 and pXO2, that are critical for its pathogenesis. Stable inheritance of pXO1 in B. anthracis is dependent upon the tubulin/FtsZ-like RepX protein encoded by this plasmid. Previously, we have shown that RepX undergoes GTP-dependent polymerization in vitro. However, the polymerization properties and localization pattern of RepX in vivo are not known. Here, we utilize a RepX-green fluorescent protein (GFP) fusion to show that RepX forms foci and three distinct forms of polymeric structures in B. anthracis in vivo, namely straight, curved, and helical filaments. Polymerization of RepX-GFP as well as the nature of polymers formed were dependent upon concentration of the protein inside the B. anthracis cells. RepX predominantly localized as polymers that were parallel to the length of the cell. RepX also formed polymers in Escherichia coli in the absence of other pXO1-encoded products, showing that in vivo polymerization is an inherent property of the protein and does not require either the pXO1 plasmid or proteins unique to B. anthracis. Overexpression of RepX did not affect the cell morphology of B. anthracis cells, whereas it drastically distorted the cell morphology of E. coli host cells. We discuss the significance of our observations in view of the plasmid-specific functions that have been proposed for RepX and related proteins encoded by several megaplasmids found in members of the Bacillus cereus group of bacteria.
Capsule-encoding virulence plasmid pXO2 of Bacillus anthracis is predicted to replicate by a unidirectional theta-type mechanism. To gain a better understanding of the mechanism of replication of pXO2 and other plasmids in B. anthracis and related organisms, we have developed a cell-free system based on B. anthracis that can faithfully replicate plasmid DNA in vitro. The newly developed system was shown to support the in vitro replication of plasmid pT181, which replicates by the rolling-circle mechanism. We also demonstrate that this system supports the replication of plasmid pXO2 of B. anthracis. Replication of pXO2 required directional transcription through the plasmid origin of replication, and increased transcription through the origin resulted in an increase in plasmid replication.
Anthrax is a fatal disease caused by strains of Bacillus anthracis. Members of this monophyletic species are non motile and are all characterized by the presence of four prophages and a nonsense mutation in the plcR regulator gene. Here we report the complete genome sequence of a Bacillus strain isolated from a chimpanzee that had died with clinical symptoms of anthrax. Unlike classic B. anthracis, this strain was motile and lacked the four prohages and the nonsense mutation. Four replicons were identified, a chromosome and three plasmids. Comparative genome analysis revealed that the chromosome resembles those of non-B. anthracis members of the Bacillus cereus group, whereas two plasmids were identical to the anthrax virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2. The function of the newly discovered third plasmid with a length of 14 kbp is unknown. A detailed comparison of genomic loci encoding key features confirmed a higher similarity to B. thuringiensis serovar konkukian strain 97-27 and B. cereus E33L than to B. anthracis strains. For the first time we describe the sequence of an anthrax causing bacterium possessing both anthrax plasmids that apparently does not belong to the monophyletic group of all so far known B. anthracis strains and that differs in important diagnostic features. The data suggest that this bacterium has evolved from a B. cereus strain independently from the classic B. anthracis strains and established a B. anthracis lifestyle. Therefore we suggest to designate this isolate as “B. cereus variety (var.) anthracis”.
Bicarbonate is required for production of the major virulence factors, the toxins and capsule, of Bacillus anthracis. In this study we examined the basis for stimulation of production of protective antigen (PA), a central component of the two anthrax toxins encoded by plasmid pXO1. RNA prepared from B. anthracis grown in media with and without added bicarbonate was probed for PA mRNA. Data showed that bicarbonate was required for increased transcription of the PA gene (pag) in minimal medium. Transcription of pag was low in rich medium and could not be stimulated by the addition of bicarbonate. To characterize further the factors required for transcriptional regulation of pag, the promoter region of pag was fused to the chloramphenicol acetyltransferase gene (cat-86) of vector pPL703 and transformed by electroporation into pXO1+ (Tox+) and pXO1- (Tox-) strains of B. anthracis. Analysis of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase produced by the pag-cat-86 fusion in each of these backgrounds confirmed the results obtained by hybridization. Data obtained with this fusion also revealed that the large toxin plasmid, pXO1, found in virulent strains of B. anthracis, was required for stimulation of transcription of pag by bicarbonate. This result suggests the existence of a trans-acting factor that is involved in the activation of pag transcription.