A crystal structure reveals an elegant mechanistic switch whereby helical bending and catalytic domain rotation allow self-activation of a histidine kinase during a bacterial stress response.
Two-component systems (TCSs) are important for the adaptation and survival of bacteria and fungi under stress conditions. A TCS is often composed of a membrane-bound sensor histidine kinase (SK) and a response regulator (RR), which are relayed through sequential phosphorylation steps. However, the mechanism for how an SK is switched on in response to environmental stimuli remains obscure. Here, we report the crystal structure of a complete cytoplasmic portion of an SK, VicK from Streptococcus mutans. The overall structure of VicK is a long-rod dimer that anchors four connected domains: HAMP, Per-ARNT-SIM (PAS), DHp, and catalytic and ATP binding domain (CA). The HAMP, a signal transducer, and the PAS domain, major sensor, adopt canonical folds with dyad symmetry. In contrast, the dimer of the DHp and CA domains is asymmetric because of different helical bends in the DHp domain and spatial positions of the CA domains. Moreover, a conserved proline, which is adjacent to the phosphoryl acceptor histidine, contributes to helical bending, which is essential for the autokinase and phosphatase activities. Together, the elegant architecture of VicK with a signal transducer and sensor domain suggests a model where DHp helical bending and a CA swing movement are likely coordinated for autokinase activation.
Two-component signal transduction systems (TCSs) are promising targets for new antimicrobial research because they help bacteria and fungi adapt and survive. One of the main components of TCSs is a sensor histidine kinase (SK), which relays extracellular signals to intracellular pathways. Despite intensive research, a full-length structure of an SK has yet to be solved. In this study, we report the first crystal structure of the complete cytoplasmic region of VicK, an important SK in the tooth decay pathogen S. mutans. VicK is composed of several domains (HAMP, PAS, DHp, and catalytic and ATP binding domain [CA]) in addition to a short transmembrane domain. We find that the dimeric VicK protein has an elegant rod-shaped structure with the domains linearly connected like beads on a string. The structure suggests that VicK kinase activates itself by helical bending of the DHp domain and coordinated swinging around of the catalytic CA domain to engage with the target histidine. Structure-based mutagenesis experiments also helped us to identify key residues that are required for VicK's opposing phosphatase activity. Our studies of the multi-modular VicK protein suggest a sequential kinase activation model that may involve helical bending of the DHp domain and repositioning of the CA domains.