The principal virulence determinant of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the ESX-1 protein secretion system, is positively controlled at the transcriptional level by EspR. Depletion of EspR reportedly affects a small number of genes, both positively or negatively, including a key ESX-1 component, the espACD operon. EspR is also thought to be an ESX-1 substrate. Using EspR-specific antibodies in ChIP-Seq experiments (chromatin immunoprecipitation followed by ultra-high throughput DNA sequencing) we show that EspR binds to at least 165 loci on the Mtb genome. Included in the EspR regulon are genes encoding not only EspA, but also EspR itself, the ESX-2 and ESX-5 systems, a host of diverse cell wall functions, such as production of the complex lipid PDIM (phenolthiocerol dimycocerosate) and the PE/PPE cell-surface proteins. EspR binding sites are not restricted to promoter regions and can be clustered. This suggests that rather than functioning as a classical regulatory protein EspR acts globally as a nucleoid-associated protein capable of long-range interactions consistent with a recently established structural model. EspR expression was shown to be growth phase-dependent, peaking in the stationary phase. Overexpression in Mtb strain H37Rv revealed that EspR influences target gene expression both positively or negatively leading to growth arrest. At no stage was EspR secreted into the culture filtrate. Thus, rather than serving as a specific activator of a virulence locus, EspR is a novel nucleoid-associated protein, with both architectural and regulatory roles, that impacts cell wall functions and pathogenesis through multiple genes.
A major infection mechanism employed by the causative agent of tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), is the ESX-1 secretion system. It has been postulated that the DNA-binding protein EspR controls the virulence of Mtb by specifically regulating expression of the exported EspA protein, which is required for ESX-1 to function. Previous structural studies indicated that EspR forms dimers capable of multimerizing on DNA and forming loop structures, thus bringing together otherwise distant chromosomal regions. Such characteristics are reminiscent of nucleoid-associated proteins (NAPs), the histone equivalent in bacteria. Here we use ChIP-Seq technology to map EspR binding sites on the Mtb chromosome in living bacterial cells. Genome-wide analysis of EspR identified hundreds of binding-sites, with almost equal inter- and intra-genic distribution, and mostly found in proximity to genes associated with cell wall function. We validated a subset of EspR-binding sites experimentally and identified a consensus motif required for optimal binding affinity. Moreover, our study reveals that EspR expression varies with bacterial growth and that intracellular levels are not linked to EspR secretion. These findings corroborate the NAP nature of EspR and its dual roles, architectural and regulatory, that impact the Mtb chromosome and pathogenesis globally rather than the ESX-1 loci specifically.