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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Mar 5, 2002; 99(5): 3129–3134.
Published online Feb 19, 2002. doi:  10.1073/pnas.052694299
PMCID: PMC122484
Microbiology

Quorum-sensing regulators control virulence gene expression in Vibrio cholerae

Abstract

The production of virulence factors including cholera toxin and the toxin-coregulated pilus in the human pathogen Vibrio cholerae is strongly influenced by environmental conditions. The well-characterized ToxR signal transduction cascade is responsible for sensing and integrating the environmental information and controlling the virulence regulon. We show here that, in addition to the known components of the ToxR signaling circuit, quorum-sensing regulators are involved in regulation of V. cholerae virulence. We focused on the regulators LuxO and HapR because homologues of these two proteins control quorum sensing in the closely related luminous marine bacterium Vibrio harveyi. Using an infant mouse model, we found that a luxO mutant is severely defective in colonization of the small intestine. Gene arrays were used to profile transcription in the V. cholerae wild type and the luxO mutant. These studies revealed that the ToxR regulon is repressed in the luxO mutant, and that this effect is mediated by another negative regulator, HapR. We show that LuxO represses hapR expression early in log-phase growth, and constitutive expression of hapR blocks ToxR-regulon expression. Additionally, LuxO and HapR regulate a variety of other cellular processes including motility, protease production, and biofilm formation. Together these data suggest a role for quorum sensing in modulating expression of blocks of virulence genes in a reciprocal fashion in vivo.

The Gram-negative bacterium Vibrio cholerae usually inhabits natural aquatic environments, but it is best known as the causative agent of cholera, a severe diarrheal disease (1). Two factors are critical to V. cholerae virulence—cholera enterotoxin (CT) and an intestinal colonization factor known as the toxin-coregulated pilus (TCP). Poorly characterized environmental cues influence the expression of CT and TCP in vivo (2). Two sensory proteins, ToxR and TcpP, likely play a role in detection of the environmental signals, and then initiate a signal transduction cascade that promotes the expression of ToxT, which in turn, directly activates the transcription of genes involved in TCP and CT expression (3).

Recent work has established that many species of bacteria monitor their cell-population densities through the exchange of chemical signaling molecules (called autoinducers) that accumulate extracellularly and trigger alterations in behavior at high population densities. This phenomenon is referred to as quorum sensing (4, 5). Quorum sensing controls processes that include bioluminescence, virulence, biofilm formation, and sporulation in various bacterial species. In general, quorum sensing regulates processes that are effective only when a population of bacteria acts in a coordinated manner, but not when the bacteria act as individuals. Gram-negative bacteria typically use acyl-homoserine lactones as autoinducers (5, 6), whereas Gram-positive bacteria usually use modified oligopeptides as the communication signals (57). A link between quorum sensing and virulence has been established for only a few bacterial pathogens, most notably Pseudomonas aeruginosa (8) and Staphylococcus aureus (9).

The marine bacterium Vibrio harveyi uses a complicated quorum-sensing system to regulate bioluminescence and other phenotypes (10). V. harveyi produces two autoinducers, a homoserine lactone autoinducer (AI-1) and a second quorum-sensing autoinducer (AI-2) that was recently found to be a borate diester (11, 12). Detection of and response to AI-1 and AI-2 occurs through two parallel two-component signal transduction circuits (10, 13, 14), and a shared response regulator called LuxO integrates the information from these two circuits (15). LuxO negatively regulates luminescence expression, presumably by activating a putative downstream repressor of the luciferase operon (luxCDABE) (16). Additionally, a positive regulator called LuxR is required for transcription of the genes encoding luciferase (17, 18). LuxR is a close homologue of the V. cholerae protease regulatory protein HapR (19).

Analysis of the completed V. cholerae genome (20) reveals that although V. cholerae lacks the genes required for light production (luxCDABE), it possesses the genes required for production and response to the quorum-sensing signal AI-2 (luxS, PQ, OU). Consistent with this finding, earlier work demonstrated that V. cholerae produces AI-2 (21, 22). However, the V. cholerae target(s) controlled by this putative quorum-sensing circuit, if any, remained unknown. Here we show that the V. harveyi-like quorum-sensing regulators are involved in controlling V. cholerae virulence gene expression. Surprisingly, in contrast to other bacterial species in which quorum sensing activates virulence gene expression at high cell densities, in V. cholerae, quorum sensing appears to repress ToxR-regulated virulence genes.

Materials and Methods

Bacterial Strains, Plasmids, and Culture Conditions.

V. cholerae El Tor strain C6706 (23) was used as the parental strain in this study. The method used for construction of the hapR and luxO deletion mutants was that of Skorupski and Taylor (24). The phapR plasmid was constructed by cloning the hapR ORF into pBBR1MCS4 (25) downstream of the constitutive plac promoter. An isopropyl β-d-thiogalactoside (IPTG)-inducible hapR-expressing plasmid (pJZ146) was constructed by subcloning the hapR gene into pMal-c2x (New England Biolabs). pMal-c2x contains the ptac promoter and the lacIQ gene. Chromosomal tcpP-lacZ and hapR-lacZ transcriptional reporter fusions were constructed by PCR amplifying the 5′ DNA of tcpP and hapR, respectively, and cloning these fragments into pVIK112 (26). The resulting plasmids were then integrated into the chromosome at the tcpP and hapR loci, respectively, by homologous recombination. When CT and TCP production was required, V. cholerae strains were grown in AKI medium as described (27). In all other experiments, V. cholerae strains were propagated in LB at 37°C.

Microarray Experiments.

The production of spotted microarrays containing full-length ORFs derived from V. cholerae strain N16961 has been described (28). RNA was isolated from cells grown in AKI medium by using TRIzol reagent (GIBCO/BRL), extracted with hot phenol (pH 5.2, 65°C), and purified by using a RNeasy kit (Qiagen, Chatsworth, CA). Fluorescently labeled cDNA was prepared by direct incorporation of fluorescent nucleotide analogues (Cy3-dCTP and Cy5-dCTP) during a first-strand randomly primed reverse transcription reaction. The differentially labeled cDNAs were combined and subsequently applied to the array surface under conditions that favor hybridization (28). Microarray slides were scanned by using a ScanArray 5000 apparatus (GSI Lumonics, Watertown, MA). For every ORF-specific spot, the resulting fluorescence intensity of each of the labels was measured and compared by using the GENEPIX PRO 3.0 software system (Axon Instruments, Foster City, CA).

Detection of CT, TCP, and Hemagglutinin (HA) Protease.

GM1 ganglioside enzyme-linked immunosorbent CT assays (29) were performed after incubation of V. cholerae strains for 5 h at 37°C, with aeration in AKI medium. Cell extracts prepared from cultures used for CT assays were subjected to SDS/PAGE, transferred to nitrocellulose membranes, probed with anti-TcpA antibody (30), and visualized by using the enhanced chemiluminescence detection system (Amersham Pharmacia). HA protease azocasein assays were performed as described (31). Zymograms were performed by incorporating 0.2% (final) gelatin into 7% SDS/PAGE gels. Sample buffer was added to culture supernatants that subsequently were applied to the gels without boiling. After electrophoresis, gels were rinsed for 30 min in 2.5% and then 1% Triton X-100, followed by three rinses in protease buffer (0.1 M Tris, pH 8/0.5 mM CaCl2). In-gel protease activity was allowed to proceed overnight in protease buffer at 37°C, after which gels were stained with Coomassie blue.

Biofilm Assays.

Overnight cultures of V. cholerae were inoculated at a 1:100 dilution into LB broth and incubated in borosilicate tubes for 18 h at 22°C. Subsequently, the tubes were rinsed with distilled water then filled with crystal violet stain. After 5 min, the tubes were rinsed. The biofilm-associated crystal violet was resuspended with DMSO, and the OD570 of the resulting suspension was measured.

Infant Mouse Colonization Assay.

The infant mouse colonization assay has been described (32). Briefly, V. cholerae mutant strains (Lac+) were mixed with the wild-type strain (Lac), and approximately 105 cells were inoculated into 5- to 6-day-old CD-1 suckling mice. After a 20 h period of colonization, intestinal homogenates were collected, and the ratio of mutant/wild-type bacteria was determined by plating on LB agar containing 5-bromo-4-chloro-3-indolyl β-d-galactoside.

Results

LuxO Is Required for V. cholerae to Colonize Mice.

The V. harveyi luxCDABE operon was used as a heterologous target in V. cholerae to test for quorum-sensing regulation. This study revealed that wild-type V. cholerae expresses luminescence in a cell density-dependent manner, a luxO mutant displays maximal constitutive luminescence, and a hapR mutant produces no light (M.B.M. and B.L.B., unpublished work). These lux expression patterns correspond exactly to those of the analogous V. harveyi strains, confirming that the V. harveyi-like quorum-sensing circuit is operational in V. cholerae, and also that the V. cholerae LuxO and HapR proteins are functional homologues of the V. harveyi LuxO and LuxR proteins, at least with respect to regulation of luciferase. However, V. cholerae does not possess a luciferase operon, so it is not clear what the endogenous quorum-sensing controlled targets are in this bacterium. The only previously characterized role for HapR is in regulation of expression of the HA protease (19).

In an effort to determine the targets of quorum sensing in V. cholerae, we tested whether mutations in luxO and/or hapR affect V. cholerae pathogenesis. To do this we performed an in vivo colonization assay using the infant mouse model. Six-day-old suckling CD-1 mice were infected with 1:1 mixtures of overnight-cultured wild-type and luxO mutants and wild-type and hapR mutants. Mice were killed after 20 h, and the small intestine was analyzed to determine the ratio of wild-type to mutant bacteria. Wild-type bacteria could be distinguished from the mutant strains by virtue of a lacZ deletion that does not affect virulence. Table Table11 shows our results. The hapR mutant colonizes infant mice to the same extent as wild-type V. cholerae (competitive index ≈ 1). In contrast, the luxO mutant is profoundly defective in colonization, as not a single luxO mutant bacterium was recovered from the small intestines of any of the 12 mice used in the experiment. Therefore the competitive index for the luxO mutant is <10−4.

Table 1
Infant mouse colonization assays

LuxO Regulates Virulence Gene Expression.

To investigate the mechanism by which LuxO regulates V. cholerae pathogenicity, we performed whole-genome DNA microarray experiments and compared the transcription profiles of the wild-type and luxO mutants. In this experiment we used in vitro conditions (AKI medium) that are known to induce the expression of virulence factors. Our results are presented in Fig. Fig.11 and Table Table2.2. Fig. Fig.11 shows that, relative to the wild-type strain, many genes are activated and many are repressed in the luxO mutant. However, higher expression of all of the genes in the ToxR-virulence regulon occurs in the wild-type strain compared with the luxO mutant. The differences in expression level for all of the LuxO-regulated genes are given in Table Table2.2. Again, these data clearly show that the entire ToxR regulon is repressed in the luxO mutant. For example, genes in the TCP island are repressed 2.7- to 41.7-fold in the luxO mutant. Similarly, the ctxA and ctxB genes, which are transcribed in an operon and encode the two subunits of CT, are also strongly inhibited (40-fold) in the luxO mutant.

Figure 1
Gene expression profiles for wild-type C6706 and the luxO V. cholerae mutant. Genes with higher expression in the wild-type strain compared with the luxO mutant are shown in red. Genes expressed at higher levels in the luxO mutant compared with the wild-type ...
Table 2
Differential gene expression in the luxO mutant in AKI medium

To verify the microarray data, we examined the production of two major virulence determinants, CT and TcpA, after growth in AKI medium under exactly the same conditions we used in the microarray experiment. Our results show that the luxO mutant does not produce any detectable TcpA (Fig. (Fig.22 Upper) or CT (Fig. (Fig.22 Lower). These data are consistent with the microarray experiment and explain why the luxO mutant fails to colonize mice.

Figure 2
CT and TcpA production in wild-type C6706 and mutant V. cholerae strains. Samples were prepared after 5 h incubation in AKI medium with aeration at 37°C. (Upper) Cell pellets from the specified strains were subjected to Western blot and probed ...

LuxO Acts at the Level of tcpP Expression.

Two parallel signal transduction cascades coordinately regulate virulence in V. cholerae (33). The ToxR–ToxS and the TcpP–TcpH signaling circuits detect and respond to environmental stimuli, and both circuits exert their regulatory control over virulence by influencing the expression of toxT. ToxT, in turn, activates the transcription of a variety of genes required for virulence (34). To study the mechanism of repression of the virulence regulon in the luxO mutant, we constitutively expressed ToxR, TcpP, and ToxT (33) in the luxO mutant and tested whether overexpression of any of these genes could bypass the luxO defect and restore the mutant to CT production. Fig. Fig.33A shows that constitutive expression of toxR does not affect CT production in the luxO mutant. However, CT is produced when either tcpP or toxT is constitutively expressed in the luxO mutant. This result indicates that the LuxO effect on the virulence regulon is mediated through down-regulation of TcpP. Consistent with this hypothesis, the microarray data in Table Table22 show that 16.6-fold lower expression of tcpP occurs in the luxO mutant than in the wild-type strain.

Figure 3
LuxO represses tcpP expression. (A) toxR, tcpP, and toxT were cloned into the expression vector pBAD24 (33), and the plasmids were introduced into the V. cholerae luxO mutant. Subsequently, the strains were grown under AKI-inducing conditions in the presence ...

In an independent test to verify that LuxO activates tcpP expression, we introduced tcpP-lacZ transcriptional reporter fusions onto the chromosomes of the wild-type and luxO null mutant. The β-galactosidase activity of the tcpP-lacZ fusion was measured in each strain, and we found that 40-fold less expression of the reporter occurs in the luxO mutant than in the wild type (Fig. (Fig.33B). This result shows that transcription of tcpP requires the presence of a functional LuxO protein.

LuxO Acts Through HapR to Control tcpP Expression.

The microarray experiment reveals that one of the genes regulated by LuxO is the V. harveyi luxR homologue hapR. Specifically, hapR expression increases 6.9-fold in the luxO mutant, suggesting that LuxO is a repressor of hapR expression (Table (Table2).2). We therefore wondered whether LuxO might affect tcpP expression indirectly, by acting through HapR. We hypothesized that LuxO negatively regulates hapR expression, and HapR in turn represses tcpP expression. To test this idea, a plasmid containing a constitutively expressed hapR gene was introduced into wild-type V. cholerae. The resulting recombinant strain fails to produce TCP and CT under our standard inducing conditions (Fig. (Fig.2),2), indicating that HapR is involved in repression of the ToxR regulon. Consistent with this result, Fig. Fig.33B shows that in a wild-type strain, constitutive expression of hapR results in nearly complete repression of the tcpP-lacZ reporter fusion. Microarray analysis also demonstrates that constitutive expression of hapR results in a transcriptional profile of V. cholerae virulence genes very similar to that of the luxO mutant (data not shown). Taken together, these data suggest that HapR acts downstream of LuxO to repress tcpP expression, and this action ultimately results in repression of the ToxR virulence regulon.

To confirm our predictions regarding the roles of LuxO and HapR in virulence gene regulation, we performed an epistasis test to show that HapR indeed acts downstream of LuxO. We constructed a luxO, hapR double null mutant and tested CT and TCP production as well as the ability of the double mutant to colonize mice. The double mutant produces wild-type levels of both CT and TCP (Fig. (Fig.2),2), and this mutant has, at most, only a minor colonization defect (Table (Table1).1). These data show that hapR is epistatic to luxO and that LuxO is therefore not required to directly activate the tcpP promoter. Rather, LuxO controls tcpP expression indirectly by repressing expression of hapR, which in turn represses tcpP expression. We do not know whether HapR acts directly or indirectly to repress tcpP transcription. In general, HapR and its homologues in other Vibrio species (LuxR, SmcR, and OpaR) act as transcriptional activators (17, 18, 36, 37). As mentioned previously, HapR activates the expression of luxCDABE in V. cholerae. Many activators are also repressors, however, and HapR could possess both activities. Alternatively, HapR could activate a downstream repressor of tcpP expression.

LuxO Regulation of hapR Expression.

Our data suggest that HapR plays an important role in the quorum-sensing regulation of V. cholerae virulence factors. To further investigate how HapR functions in regulation of the virulence process, we monitored the expression of a hapR-lacZ transcriptional fusion in the wild-type and the luxO mutant V. cholerae strains as a function of cell density. Fig. Fig.44A shows that hapR is expressed at low cell densities in the luxO null mutant, but not at low cell densities in wild-type V. cholerae. However, by the time the strains reach late log-phase, expression of hapR is identical in the wild-type and the luxO mutant. We interpret this result to imply that initial but not late expression of hapR in the luxO mutant is critical for the inhibition of virulence factor production.

Figure 4
LuxO regulation of hapR expression and HapR regulation of CT production. (A) Wild-type and luxO mutants carrying a chromosomal hapR-lacZ reporter fusion were grown in AKI medium at 37°C. Samples were withdrawn at the specified ODs, and β-galactosidase ...

A model in which early but not late expression of hapR represses virulence gene expression predicts that induction of hapR at late times should not influence the production of virulence factors. To test this idea, we introduced a plasmid containing an IPTG-inducible hapR gene construction into wild-type V. cholerae C6706. IPTG was added at different time points during growth, and CT production was assayed after 10 h of incubation. Fig. Fig.44B shows the level of CT production in HapR-expressing cells compared with that produced by a strain containing a vector control. Fig. Fig.44B shows that the HapR inhibitory effect on CT production is observed only when hapR is induced at early time points, even though SDS/PAGE analysis showed that the total HapR protein made by 10 h was similar regardless of whether IPTG was added at 0 h or 8 h (data not shown). These data indicate that, at least in vitro, HapR acts at an early stage of growth to repress virulence factor production. It remains unclear how HapR regulates virulence gene expression in vivo.

LuxO and HapR Proteins Control Multiple Processes in V. cholerae.

We investigated whether LuxO and HapR might control multiple cellular processes in addition to pathogenesis. As mentioned, HapR is required for production of the HA protease (19). The HA protease is encoded by the hapA gene, and it is a major extracellular protease that may serve as a “detachase” during colonization (38). Zymogram analysis (Fig. (Fig.55A) of 17 h cell-free spent culture fluids from the V. cholerae hapR and hapA mutants shows that, as expected, these mutants produce no HA protease. Quantitative analysis of the protease activities of the hapR mutant shows that it is very similar to that of the hapA mutant (Fig. (Fig.5).5). In contrast, identical preparations made from the luxO mutant resulted in a zymogram and protease activity profile similar to that of the wild type (Fig. (Fig.5).5). Interestingly, our analyses demonstrate that higher levels of protease are present in cell-free spent culture fluids prepared from a luxO-hapA double mutant than from the hapA single mutant (Fig. (Fig.55B). This result indicates that LuxO negatively regulates secreted proteases other than the HA protease. Additionally, the time course of protease production (Fig. (Fig.55B) shows that protease activity is produced earlier in the luxO mutant than in the wild type. We suggest that this LuxO regulation is exerted through HapR, which is consistent with our finding that LuxO represses hapR expression only at low cell density.

Figure 5
HA protease production in V. cholerae wild-type and mutant strains. (A) Zymogram analyses of cell-free culture fluids prepared from the designated V. cholerae parent and isogenic mutant strains after 17 h incubation at 37°C are shown. In lanes ...

The microarray data presented in Table Table22 show that the expression of several genes involved in chemotaxis and motility are altered in the luxO mutant. We examined the motility of the luxO mutant on a swarm plate and found that this mutant is less motile than the wild-type and hapR mutant strains (Fig. (Fig.66A). We also tested whether LuxO and HapR are involved in biofilm formation. Photographs and crystal violet quantifications of biofilms produced by the wild-type, luxO, and hapR mutants are shown in Fig. Fig.66B. Compared with wild-type V. cholerae, the luxO mutant is deficient in its ability to form a biofilm, whereas the hapR mutant is increased in its ability to form a biofilm.

Figure 6
LuxO and HapR control multiple processes in V. cholerae. (A) Different V. cholerae strains were inoculated into motility agar (LB containing 0.3% agar) and incubated at 37°C for 4 h, after which the photograph was taken. (B) A comparison ...

Discussion

Bacteria coordinately control gene expression to adapt to and survive in fluctuating environmental conditions. For example, the human pathogen V. cholerae possesses a virulence regulon of more than 20 genes involved in colonization, toxin production, and bacterial survival within the host (33, 34). The virulence regulon is under the control of a cascade of transcriptional regulators that includes ToxR, TcpP, and ToxT. These regulators are hypothesized to respond to external cues such as temperature, pH, and osmolarity. In this study, we demonstrate a central role for the quorum-sensing proteins LuxO and HapR in the regulation of virulence gene expression in V. cholerae. The data presented here suggest that LuxO negatively regulates the expression of HapR, which in turn represses the expression of the essential virulence gene regulator, TcpP.

It remains unclear how quorum signals and other environmental cues are integrated to regulate virulence in vivo. One speculative model (Fig. (Fig.7)7) proposes that on initial (low bacterial cell density) colonization of a host by V. cholerae LuxO represses hapR and allows the expression of tcpP. This, in turn, results in the expression of the virulence factors in the ToxR regulon. These virulence factors enable V. cholerae to colonize the small intestine, multiply, and produce cholera toxin. When a high cell density is reached, autoinducer accumulates, and LuxO no longer represses hapR expression. Subsequent production of HapR presumably represses tcpP and ToxR regulon expression. In contrast, at high cell density, HapR activates the expression of hapA, which encodes the HA protease. Protease expression might promote detachment of V. cholerae cells, and thus facilitate establishment of new infection foci elsewhere within the gastrointestinal tract, or alternatively, promote the exit of V. cholerae from the host. Repression of the TCP, a type IV pilus proposed to mediate bacterial-bacterial adhesion, also might promote detachment of V. cholerae from the epithelium. It should be noted that, although we have demonstrated an unequivocal role for LuxO and HapR in virulence gene expression, our studies have not yet shown that virulence genes are responsive to autoinducers that accumulate at high cell density.

Figure 7
A model for quorum-sensing regulation of V. cholerae virulence. Solid arrows denote positive effects while solid T bars denote negative effects. At low cell density, LuxO is active and represses the expression of hapR. HapR is a negative regulator of ...

Interestingly, several toxigenic V. cholerae strains (e.g., El Tor strain N16961 and classical strain O395) possess a natural frame-shift mutation in the hapR gene (data not shown). These strains express low levels of HA protease, and a mutation in luxO does not result in a CT production defect (data not shown and ref. 39). This phenotype is similar to what we show here for the luxO-hapR double mutant. It is important to note that negative regulation of the hapR homologue luxR by LuxO in V. harveyi has not been observed. Therefore, this variation in the regulatory circuit could be unique to V. cholerae. We speculate that elimination of HapR, either by mutation or LuxO repression, may be an evolutionary step that improves V. cholerae adaptation to the human host. Presumably, loss or down-regulation of HapR is advantageous for survival in and/or colonization of the host by prolonging TCP and CT expression even at high cell density. It is also likely that loss of HapR results in low HA protease production, which in turn could restrict detachment of bacteria from the intestinal epithelium. Thus, vibrios lacking HapR might remain attached to the epithelium for longer times. This could prolong colonization and the duration of shedding of vibrios in the stools of cholera sufferers. Also, as we have demonstrated, hapR mutants form thicker biofilms, and this may aid in their persistence within the host. Further studies should address how quorum-sensing autoinducers and other signals are coordinated to regulate the broad array of virulence-associated phenotypes of V. cholerae.

Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. Daniele Provenzano for assistance with the infant mouse infections, Emmy Balon for microarrays, Drs. Daniele Provenzano, James Bina, Stefan Pukatzki, and Cliff Boucher for helpful discussions, and Ron Taylor for review of the manuscript. R.E.V. is supported by a fellowship from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fund. M.B.M. is supported by a Jacobus Honorific Fellowship. This study was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant AI18045 (to J.J.M.) and National Science Foundation Grant MCB-0094447 and Office of Naval Research Grant N00014-99-1-0767 (to B.L.B.).

Abbreviations

CT
cholera enterotoxin
TCP
toxin-coregulated pilus
IPTG
isopropyl β-d-thiogalactoside
HA
hemagglutinin

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