Yersinia pestis is the causative agent of plague, which is transmitted primarily between fleas and mammals and is spread to humans through the bite of an infected flea or contact with afflicted animals. Hfq is proposed to be a global post-transcriptional regulator that acts by mediating interactions between many regulatory small RNAs (sRNAs) and their mRNA targets. Sequence comparisons revealed that Y. pestis appears to produce a functional homologue of E. coli Hfq.
Methodology and Principal Findings
Phenotype comparisons using in vitro assays demonstrated that Y. pestis Hfq was involved in resistance to H2O2, heat and polymyxin B and contributed to growth under nutrient-limiting conditions. The role of Hfq in Y. pestis virulence was also assessed using macrophage and mouse infection models, and the gene expression affected by Hfq was determined using microarray-based transcriptome and real time PCR analysis. The macrophage infection assay showed that the Y. pestis hfq deletion strain did not have any significant difference in its ability to associate with J774A.1 macrophage cells. However, hfq deletion appeared to significantly impair the ability of Y. pestis to resist phagocytosis and survive within macrophages at the initial stage of infection. Furthermore, the hfq deletion strain was highly attenuated in mice after subcutaneous or intravenous injection. Transcriptome analysis supported the results concerning the attenuated phenotype of the hfq mutant and showed that the deletion of the hfq gene resulted in significant alterations in mRNA abundance of 243 genes in more than 13 functional classes, about 23% of which are known or hypothesized to be involved in stress resistance and virulence.
Conclusions and Significance
Our results indicate that Hfq is a key regulator involved in Y. pestis stress resistance, intracellular survival and pathogenesis. It appears that Hfq acts by controlling the expression of many virulence- and stress-associated genes, probably in conjunction with small noncoding RNAs.