Posts Tagged ‘Virulence’

Salmonella adaptive “switch”

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Molecular switch lets salmonella fight or evade immune system   

February 4, 2016   http://phys.org/news/2016-02-molecular-salmonella-evade-immune.html




Salmonella forms a biofilm. Credit: CDC


Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have discovered a molecular regulator that allows salmonella bacteria to switch from actively causing disease to lurking in a chronic but asymptomatic state called a biofilm.


Their findings are published in the online journal, eLife.

Biofilms cling to surfaces in the body, such as the bronchial tubes or artificial joints, often without causing illness. But they can be a reservoir of bacteria that detach and cause disease or infect new hosts. The biofilms are resistant to host defenses and antibiotics because their tightly-packed structure exposes little surface area for drugs to reach. Many pathogenic bacteria are able to switch from an infectious to a dormant state as a strategy for survival inside their hosts.


Linda Kenney, professor of microbiology and immunology at the UIC College of Medicine and lead author of the study, had been studying how survive inside immune system cells called macrophages. These patrol the body and engulf viruses and bacteria they encounter. They encase their prey in a bubble called a vacuole that protects them from the invader until it can be destroyed.

Macrophages digest their quarry when the acidity inside the vacuole drops in response to the captive. But the bacteria have evolved a unique defense, enabling them to survive inside the vacuole and use the macrophage as a Trojan horse to travel elsewhere in the body undetected by other immune cells.

Kenney knew that a type of salmonella that causes typhoid fever in humans, called Salmonella typhi, and its mouse counterpart, Salmonella typhimurium, were able to survive inside macrophage vacuoles. She noticed that these bacteria did two things: inside the vacuole, they formed a kind of syringe – a long, hollow filament to inject the vacuole with a host of proteins that altered it. They also quickly assumed the same acidity of the vacuole.

“These two defenses, together, allow salmonella to survive and replicate in the harsh conditions of the vacuole,” Kenney said.

Further experiments revealed that sensing and mirroring the acidity, or pH, of the vacuole is what triggers salmonella to form the syringe.

“The syringe-forming and pH-adjusting genes are signaled to turn on by the lower pH inside the vacuole,” Kenney said. But these same salmonella, equipped to survive the hostile environment inside a macrophage vacuole, were also able to exist free in the body of the host—as biofilms.

“I wanted to know how Salmonella ‘decide’ between these two very different lifestyles,” Kenney said.

Studying S. typhimurium, Kenney discovered that the molecular switch is a bacterial molecule called SsrB. As the macrophage vacuole starts to acidify, SsrB is activated and it turns on the genes needed to form the syringe and adjust the pH. When salmonella lives outside the vacuole, where pH levels are neutral, SsrB instead turns on genes for sticky proteins in the membrane that help bacteria bind to one another to form biofilms.

Kenney said that many disease-causing salmonella evolved from harmless strains partly by acquiring new genes from other germs in a process called horizontal gene transfer.

“Salmonella acquired their pH-adjusting and syringe-forming genes in this way, as well as the switch that turns them on and off – SsrB,” she said. “The default mode, or its ancestral program, dictates that it make biofilms, cause no illness, and survive long enough to infect new hosts when the opportunity arises. The new genes allow it to survive the host’s main defense—the acidifying macrophage vacuole.”

Understanding how switch from the disease-causing state to the biofilm state could help scientists develop anticancer drugs that encourage the formation of biofilms on tumors, Kenney said.

“When salmonella forms biofilms on tumors, it releases TNF-alpha, a powerful anti-tumor molecule,” she said. “If we can better control the formation of biofilms, we can target them to tumors for cancer therapy.”

Explore further: Revealing camouflaged bacteria

More information: The horizontally-acquired response regulator SsrB drives a Salmonella lifestyle switch by relieving biofilm silencing, dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.10747 , elifesciences.org/content/5/e10747

The horizontally-acquired response regulator SsrB drives a Salmonella lifestyle switch by relieving biofilm silencing

 Stuti K Desai, 

A common strategy by which bacterial pathogens reside in humans is by shifting from a virulent lifestyle, (systemic infection), to a dormant carrier state. Two major serovars of Salmonella enterica, Typhi and Typhimurium, have evolved a two-component regulatory system to exist insideSalmonella-containing vacuoles in the macrophage, as well as to persist as asymptomatic biofilms in the gallbladder. Here we present evidence that SsrB, a transcriptional regulator encoded on the SPI-2 pathogenicity-island, determines the switch between these two lifestyles by controlling ancestral and horizontally-acquired genes. In the acidic macrophage vacuole, the kinase SsrA phosphorylates SsrB, and SsrB~P relieves silencing of virulence genes and activates their transcription. In the absence of SsrA, unphosphorylated SsrB directs transcription of factors required for biofilm formation specifically by activating csgD (agfD), the master biofilm regulator by disrupting the silenced, H-NS-bound promoter. Anti-silencing mechanisms thus control the switch between opposing lifestyles.



Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium is a rod-shaped enteric bacterium which easily infects diverse hosts such as humans, cattle, poultry and reptiles through contaminated food or water, causing gastroenteritis. A human-restricted serovar of Salmonella enterica, serovar Typhi, causes typhoid fever and continues to be a dangerous pathogen throughout the world. Salmonella lives as a facultative pathogen in various natural and artificial environments as independent planktonic cells, cooperative swarms (Harshey and Matsuyama, 1994) or as multi-cellular communities called biofilms (see Steenackers et al., 2012 for a review). Upon successful invasion of host cells, Salmonella is phagocytosed by macrophages, where it resides in a modified vacuole in a self-nourishing niche called a Salmonella-Containing Vacuole (SCV). This intracellular lifestyle eventually adversely affects the host. Salmonella also resides as multi-cellular communities on intestinal epithelial cells (Boddicker et al., 2002), gallstones (Prouty et al., 2002) and tumors (Crull et al., 2011). It is believed that biofilms in the gall bladder are important for maintaining the carrier state, allowing Salmonella to persist (Crawford et al., 2010).

Each of these lifestyles of Salmonella are regulated by two-component regulatory systems (TCRS). TCRSs are comprised of a membrane-bound sensor histidine kinase and a cytoplasmic response regulator. The virulence genes of Salmonella are encoded on horizontally acquired AT-rich segments of the genome called Salmonella Pathogenecity Islands (SPIs), and are also tightly regulated by TCRSs. For example, the SsrA/B TCRS is essential for the activation of the SPI-2 regulon genes encoding a type-three secretory needle and effectors that are involved in formation of the SCV (Cirillo et al., 1998). Interestingly, the SsrA/B system itself is regulated by upstream two-component systems such as EnvZ/OmpR and PhoP/Q, which regulate gene expression in response to changes in osmolality, pH and the presence of anti-microbial peptides (Fields et al., 1989; Miller et al., 1989;Lee et al., 2000; Feng et al., 2003). The ssrA and ssrB genes are present on the SPI-2 pathogenecity island adjacent to each other and are regulated by a set of divergent promoters (Feng et al., 2003; Ochman et al., 1996). Under acidic pH and low osmolality, the ssrA and ssrB genes are transcriptionally activated by the binding of OmpR~P and PhoP~P to their promoters (Feng et al., 2003; Bijlsma and Groisman, 2005; Walthers and Kenney unpublished) whose levels are in turn regulated by the respective sensor kinases, EnvZ and PhoQ. SsrA is a tripartite membrane-bound histidine sensor kinase that undergoes a series of intra-molecular phosphorylation reactions before it transfers the phosphoryl group to the N-terminal aspartate residue of the response regulator, SsrB.

SsrB belongs to the NarL/FixJ family of transcriptional regulators that require phosphorylation-dependent dimerization to bind DNA. The X-ray crystal structure of NarL revealed that the C-terminal DNA binding domain was occluded by the N-terminus (Baikalov et al., 1996), and phosphorylation was predicted to relieve this inhibition. Full-length SsrB is unstable in solution, but an isolated C-terminal domain of SsrB, SsrBc, is capable of binding to the regulatory regions of nine genes belonging to the SPI-2 regulon, including ssrA and ssrB (Feng et al., 2004; Walthers et al., 2007) and activating transcription. A role for SsrB~P was identified by its dual function as a direct transcriptional activator and as an anti-silencer of H-NS-mediated repression (Walthers et al., 2007). The Histone like Nucleoid Structuring protein H-NS is involved in silencing many of the SPI-2 regulon genes in accordance with its role in binding to xenogenic AT-rich sequences and repressing their expression (Walthers et al., 2007; Navarre et al., 2006). H-NS binding to DNA leads to the formation of a stiff nucleoprotein filament which is essential in gene silencing (Lim et al., 2012; Liu et al., 2010; Amit et al., 2003; Winardhi et al., 2015). Moreover, relief of repression occurs due to the binding of SsrBc to this rigid H-NS-DNA complex (Walthers et al., 2011).

Salmonella reservoirs in host and non-host environments produce a three-dimensional extracellular matrix which consists of curli fimbriae, cellulose, proteins and extracellular DNA, to encase clusters of bacteria and form a mature biofilm. CsgD (AgfD) is the master regulator of biofilm formation (Gerstel et al., 2003); it is a LuxR family transcriptional activator that activates the expression of curli fimbriae encoded by csgDEFG/csgBAC operons (Collinson et al., 1996; Romling et al., 1998). CsgD also activates expression of adrA, increasing intracellular c-di-GMP levels, and activating the cellulose biosynthetic operon bcsABZC (Zogaj et al., 2001). Two other biofilm matrix components are also positively regulated by CsgD: BapA and the O-antigen capsule (Latasa et al., 2005; Gibson et al., 2006).

Transcriptional profiling of biofilms formed by S. Typhimurium SL1344 showed that many SPI-2 genes were down-regulated, yet SsrA was required for biofilms (Hamilton et al., 2009). This apparent paradox drove us to explore the underlying mechanism of biofilm formation. The role of SsrA/B in this process was of particular interest, since our previous comparison of SsrA and SsrB levels at neutral and acidic pH had shown that the expression of ssrA and ssrB was uncoupled (Feng et al., 2004).

We examined the ability of the wild type S. Typhimurium strain 14028s to form biofilms in the absence of ssrA and ssrB and found it to be dependent only on the expression of ssrB. We further showed that H-NS was a negative regulator of csgD. Surprisingly, the SsrB response regulator positively regulated the formation of biofilms by activating csgD expression in the absence of any phospho-donors. Moreover, AFM imaging revealed that unphosphorylated SsrB was able to bind to the csgD regulatory region and binding was sufficient to relieve H-NS-mediated repression and favor formation of S. Typhimurium biofilms.

As a result of these studies, we propose that SsrB, a pathogenicity island-2-encoded response regulator, sits at a pivotal position in governing Salmonella lifestyle fate: to either exist inside the host (in the SCV) as a promoter of virulence; or as a surface-attached multicellular biofilm, maintaining the carrier state. This switch is achieved merely by the ability of unphosphorylated SsrB to function as an anti-repressor of H-NS and the additional role of SsrB~P in activating SPI-2 transcription (Walthers et al., 2011).


eLife digest

Salmonella bacteria can infect a range of hosts, including humans and poultry, and cause sickness and diseases such as typhoid fever. Disease-causing Salmonella evolved from harmless bacteria in part by acquiring new genes from other organisms through a process called horizontal gene transfer. However, some strains of disease-causing Salmonella can also survive inside hosts as communities called biofilms without causing any illness to their hosts, who act as carriers of the disease and are able to pass their infection on to others.

So how do Salmonella bacteria ‘decide’ between these two lifestyles? Previous studies have uncovered a regulatory system that controls the decision in Salmonella, which is made up of two proteins called SsrA and SsrB. To trigger the disease-causing lifestyle, SsrA is activated and adds a phosphate group onto SsrB. This in turn causes SsrB to bind to and switch on disease-associated genes in the bacterium. However, it was less clear how the biofilm lifestyle was triggered.

Desai et al. now reveal that the phosphate-free form of SsrB – which was considered to be the inactive form of this protein – plays an important role in the formation of biofilms. Experiments involving an approach called atomic force microscopy showed that the unmodified SsrB acts to stop a major gene that controls biofilm formation from being switched off by a so-called repressor protein.

Salmonella acquired SsrB through horizontal gene transfer, and these findings show how this protein now acts as a molecular switch between disease-causing and biofilm-based lifestyles. SsrB protein is also involved in the decision to switch between these states, but how it does so remains a question for future work.



Figure 6.


Figure 6.SsrB condenses H-NS bound csgD DNA.

(A) (i) AFM imaging in the presence of 600 nM H-NS shows a straight and rigid filament on csgD755. (ii) Addition of 600 nM SsrB to the H-NS bound csgD DNA resulted in areas of condensation (pink arrows; an ‘SsrB signature’) along with a few areas where the straight H-NS bound conformation persisted (yellow line; an ‘H-NS signature’); Scale bar = 200 nm as in Figure 5A. (B) A model for the mechanism of anti-silencing by SsrB at csgD wherein SsrB likely displaces H-NS from the ends of a stiffened nucleoprotein filament and relieves the blockade on the promoter for RNA polymerase to activate transcription. For details refer to (Winardhi et al., 2015).



Pathogenic microbes constantly evolve novel means to counter the multitude of challenges posed by complex eukaryotic hosts. Successful acquisition and integeration of laterally acquired genes into the native genome of pathogens leads to novel capabilities enabling their survival in a wide range of environmental stresses. The present work demonstrates how the presence or absence of the horizontally acquired SsrA kinase controls post-translational modification of the transcription factor SsrB (i.e. phosphorylation at aspartate-56). This event controls the fate of Salmonella Typhimurium, resulting in either acute or chronic, but asymptomatic infection. A variation on two-component signaling in a similar lifestyle fate in Pseudomonas aeruginosa involved the presence or absence of the hybrid kinase RetS (Goodman et al., 2004).

SsrB sits at a pivotal decision point that determines Salmonella lifestyles

When the SsrA kinase is present and activated by acid stress, SsrB is phosphorylated and SsrB~P de-represses H-NS and activates transcription at SPI-2 and SPI-2 co-regulated genes, including: sifA(Walthers et al., 2011), ssaB, ssaM, sseA and ssaG (Walthers et al., 2007). In the absence of the SsrA kinase, SsrB is not phosphorylated, but it can counter H-NS silencing at csgD (Figure 4A–D andFigure 6A). SsrB binding and bending at the csgD promoter causes a sufficient change in the DNA secondary structure (Figure 5B,C) that likely enables access for RNA polymerase, stimulating csgDtranscription. It is interesting to note that SsrB is located on the SPI-2 pathogenicity island, and thus was acquired as Salmonella enterica diverged from Salmonella bongori. However, the capability to form biofilms is an ancestral trait, as phylogeny studies have shown that most of the natural or clinical isolates of Salmonella belonging to all the five sub-groups form rdar colonies (White and Surette, 2006). The SsrB response regulator can control two distinct lifestyle choices: the ability to assemble a type three secretory system and survive in the macrophage vacuole or the ability to form biofilms on gallstones in the gall bladder to establish the carrier state.

What then controls the presence or activation of the kinase SsrA? Our early experiments indicated that SsrA and SsrB were uncoupled from one another (i.e., SsrB was present in the absence of SsrA) and ssrA transcription was completely dependent on OmpR (Feng et al., 2004). The EnvZ/OmpR system is stimulated by a decrease in cytoplasmic pH when Salmonella enters the macrophage vacuole (Chakraborty et al., 2015). This may also be the stimulus for activating SsrA, since theSalmonella cytoplasm acidifies to pH 5.6 during infection and the cytoplasmic domain of EnvZ (EnvZc) was sufficient for signal transduction (Wang et al., 2012; Chakraborty et al., 2015). Previous reports also identified a role for PhoP in ssrA translation (Bijlsma and Groisman, 2005), which would further add to fluctuating SsrA levels. The present work describes a novel role for the unphosphorylated response regulator SsrB in de-repressing H-NS (Figure 6B). We show that under biofilm-inducing conditions, unphosphorylated SsrB is sufficient to activate the expression of csgD. There are only a few such examples of unphosphorylated response regulators playing a role in transcription such as DegU (Dahl et al., 1992) in Bacillus subtilis and RcsB (Latasa et al., 2012) in S.Typhimurium.

The importance of anti-silencing in gene regulation

In recent years, it has become apparent that H-NS silences pathogenicity island genes in Salmonella(Lucchini et al., 2006; Navarre et al., 2006; Walthers et al., 2007; 2011). Understanding how H-NS silences genes and how this silencing is relieved is an active area of research (Will et al., 2015;Winardhi et al., 2015). Because the anti-silencing style of gene regulation is indirect and does not rely on specific DNA interactions, searching for SsrB binding sites has not been informative in uncovering this type of regulation (Tomljenovic-Berube et al., 2010; Worley et al., 2000; Shea et al., 1996). Even a recent report in which the proteomes of wild type, hilA null (a transcriptional regulator of SPI-1 genes) and ssrB null were analyzed by SILAC and compared with an existing CHIP dataset failed to identify csgD as an SsrB-regulated locus (Brown et al., 2014), as sequence gazing alone does not help in identifying mechanisms of transcriptional regulation.

SsrB is well suited to this style of regulation, because it does not recognize a well-defined binding site (Feng et al., 2004; Walthers et al., 2007; Tomljenovic-Berube et al., 2010), it has a high non-specific binding component (Carroll et al., 2009) and it bends DNA upon binding (Carroll et al., 2009; Figure 6B, this work). Furthermore, previous microarray studies disrupted both ssrA and ssrB, which would not uncover a distinct role for SsrB in gene regulation under non SPI-2-inducing conditions in the absence of the SsrA kinase. It is worth mentioning here that in our AFM images, it was apparent that H-NS was still bound to some regions of the csgD promoter when SsrB condensed the DNA (Figure 6A(ii)). Thus, H-NS does not have to be completely stripped off the DNA for de-repression to occur, a finding that was also evident in our previous studies (Liu et al., 2010) and others (Will et al., 2014).

SsrB binds and bends DNA, resulting in highly curved DNA conformations. This DNA binding property of SsrB is distinct from H-NS, which forms rigid nucleoprotein filaments and thus straight DNA conformations (Figure 6A(i)). Bent DNA is therefore an energetically unfavorable substrate for H-NS binding, and a likely mechanism of SsrB-mediated anti-silencing of H-NS repressed genes. SsrB-dependent displacement of H-NS is more energetically favored to occur predominantly at the ends of H-NS-bound filaments, which requires disruption of fewer H-NS protein-protein interactions (Winardhi et al., 2015 and Figure 6B). In an equal mixture of H-NS and SsrB (Figure 6A(ii)), we do not see evidence of sharply bent filaments. This is expected because H-NS dissociation is likely restricted to the filament ends. Such events occur due to the cooperative nature of H-NS binding that results in a chain of linked H-NS proteins. Hence, H-NS displacement by SsrB likely occurs progressively from the filament end. This behavior has been observed in our single-molecule stretching experiments with H-NS filaments in the presence of SsrB. This ability of H-NS to re-orient on the DNA without being released would also promote its re-binding and silencing when SsrB or other anti-silencers are released (Figure 6B).

Structural homology does not indicate functional homology

Response regulators are grouped into subfamilies on the basis of the structures of their DNA binding domains. SsrB is in the NarL/FixJ subfamily, which possess a helix-turn-helix (HTH) motif in the C-terminus (Baikalov et al., 1996). NarL was the first full-length structure of a response regulator and it showed that the N-terminal phosphorylation domain physically blocked the recognition helix in the HTH motif (Maris et al., 2002). Thus, phosphorylation is required to relieve the inhibition of the N-terminus. In the results presented herein, it is apparent that SsrB has adapted to relieving H-NS-silencing and that phosphorylation is not required for this behavior, nor is it required for DNA binding (Figure 5B).

In summary, we showed that the response regulator SsrB is required for biofilm formation because it can de-repress H-NS at the csgD promoter (Figure 6B). This leads to the production of CsgD, the master regulator of biofilms. It is noteworthy that a laterally acquired gene product, SsrB, has evolved the job of regulating the levels of csgD, a transcriptional regulator encoded by the core genome. For this activity, phosphorylation of SsrB was not required, which is rare amongst response regulators. Furthermore, we identify H-NS as a repressor of csgD in Salmonella, instead of an activator (Gerstel et al., 2003). This unifies the regulation of CsgD by H-NS in E. coli (Ogasawara et al., 2010) and Salmonella. This work places SsrB at a unique decision point in the choice between lifestyles bySalmonella and makes it crucial for the entire gamut of pathogenesis, i.e., biofilms and virulence.

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Reported by: Dr. Venkat S. Karra, Ph.D

Biophysicists unravel secrets of genetic switch

When an invading bacterium or virus starts rummaging through the contents of a cell nucleus, using proteins like tiny hands to rearrange the host’s DNA strands, it can alter the host’s biological course. The invading proteins use specific binding, firmly grabbing onto particular sequences of DNA, to bend, kink and twist the DNA strands. The invaders also use non-specific binding to grasp any part of a DNA strand, but these seemingly random bonds are weak.

Emory University biophysicists have experimentally demonstrated, for the first time, how the nonspecific binding of a protein known as the lambda repressor, or C1 protein, bends DNA and helps it close a loop that switches off virulence. The researchers also captured the first measurements of that compaction.

Their results, published in Physical Review E, support the idea that nonspecific binding is not so random after all, and plays a critical role in whether a pathogen remains dormant or turns virulent.

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