The ESAT-6 (early secreted antigenic target, 6 kDa) family collects small mycobacterial proteins secreted by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, particularly in the early phase of growth. There are 23 ESAT-6 family members in M. tuberculosis H37Rv. In a previous work, we identified the Zur- dependent regulation of five proteins of the ESAT-6/CFP-10 family (esxG, esxH, esxQ, esxR, and esxS). esxG and esxH are part of ESAT-6 cluster 3, whose expression was already known to be induced by iron starvation.
In this research, we performed EMSA experiments and transcriptional analysis of ESAT-6 cluster 3 in Mycobacterium smegmatis (msmeg0615-msmeg0625) and M. tuberculosis. In contrast to what we had observed in M. tuberculosis, we found that in M. smegmatis ESAT-6 cluster 3 responds only to iron and not to zinc. In both organisms we identified an internal promoter, a finding which suggests the presence of two transcriptional units and, by consequence, a differential expression of cluster 3 genes. We compared the expression of msmeg0615 and msmeg0620 in different growth and stress conditions by means of relative quantitative PCR. The expression of msmeg0615 and msmeg0620 genes was essentially similar; they appeared to be repressed in most of the tested conditions, with the exception of acid stress (pH 4.2) where msmeg0615 was about 4-fold induced, while msmeg0620 was repressed. Analysis revealed that in acid stress conditions M. tuberculosis rv0282 gene was 3-fold induced too, while rv0287 induction was almost insignificant.
In contrast with what has been reported for M. tuberculosis, our results suggest that in M. smegmatis only IdeR-dependent regulation is retained, while zinc has no effect on gene expression. The role of cluster 3 in M. tuberculosis virulence is still to be defined; however, iron- and zinc-dependent expression strongly suggests that cluster 3 is highly expressed in the infective process, and that the cluster contributes to the antigenic profile during the course of infection. Moreover, cluster 3 induction in acid stress conditions strengthens the hypothesis that cluster 3 is expressed in the course of infection.
In M. smegmatis, the expression of msmeg0615 and msmeg0620 genes is broadly similar in differing growth phases and in stress conditions, with the exception of acid stress (pH 4.2). Differences in expression between cluster 3 genes can be explained by the presence of internal promoters, both in M. smegmatis and M. tuberculosis.