The regulatory network controlling natural competence for DNA uptake in Vibrio cholerae
Antonova, Elena S.
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The bacterial pathogen Vibrio cholerae is responsible for ongoing cholera outbreaks in Haiti and elsewhere. Association of V. cholerae with the human host is responsible for fatal disease, but the bacteria also reside as natural inhabitants of aquatic environments, commonly attaching as biofilms to chitinous surfaces of copepods and crabs. Prior studies in V. cholerae demonstrated that competence for genetic transformation, a mechanism of horizontal gene transfer (HGT), requires the TfoX regulator protein that is triggered by chitin, and the HapR transcription factor that is made in response to quorum sensing (QS) signals produced by V. cholerae and Vibrios. To define regulatory components connecting extracellular signals to natural competence, I first demonstrated that QS molecules produced by Vibrios within multi-species chitinous biofilms are required for DNA uptake by V. cholerae, confirming the critical role of QS signals in HGT. Second, I identified by transposon-mutagenesis a new positive regulator of competence, CytR (cytidine repressor), only studied prior in E. coli as a regulator of nucleoside scavenging. Specific mutations in V. cholerae CytR impaired expression of competence genes and halted DNA uptake; and the addition of exogenous cytidine had similar affects as predicted in E. coli. V. cholerae and other competent Vibrios encode TfoX, HapR, and CytR, although none of these regulators directly controls genes coding for the DNA uptake apparatus. Thus, these results have uncovered a regulatory network, likely used by many Vibrios, that contains additional factors linking several extracellular chemical molecules (cytidine, chitin, and QS signals) to DNA uptake. My study has begun to define a molecular mechanism by which both environment and genetics contribute to genome evolution for this important marine pathogen.