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Bacillus anthracis genetics and virulence gene regulation.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, University of Texas Medical School, Houston, TX 77030, USA.


The Bacillus anthracis genome consists of an approximately 5.3-Mb chromosome and two plasmids, pXO1 (182 kb) and pXO2 (96 kb). Genetic analysis has focused primarily on the structural genes for the anthrax toxin proteins, pagA, lef, and cya, the biosynthetic genes for capsule synthesis, capB, capC, and capA, and a gene associated with depolymerization of capsule, dep. The three toxin genes are located at distinct loci on pXO1, while the cap and dep genes are arranged in an apparent operon on pXO2. Additional genes that may play a role in B. anthracis virulence include the germination operon gerX and the general stress transcription factor sigB. Host-related signals affecting transcription of the toxin and capsule genes include temperature (37 degrees C) and bicarbonate/CO2. The B. anthracis plasmids carry two regulatory genes that share little sequence similarity with regulators in other bacteria. The pXO1-encoded gene atxA positively controls expression of the toxin and capsule genes, and has been implicated in control of other genes of unknown function. atxA mutants are avirulent in mice, and mice infected with atxA-null strains show a decreased immunological response to the toxin proteins. The pXO2-encoded regulator, acpA, shares sequence similarity with atxA. Yet acpA function appears to be restricted to positive control of capsule gene expression. The chromosomal gene abrB, a homologue of a well-characterized B. subtilis transition state regulator, controls growth phase-specific transcription of the toxin genes. Genetic manipulation of B. anthracis can be achieved by using natural means of DNA transfer and by electroporation of recombinant DNAs into B. anthracis. Genetic exchange can occur between B. anthracis strains and between B. anthracis and closely-related species. Although pXO1 and pXO2 are not self-transmissible, these plasmids and others can be transferred by conjugative plasmids originating in B. thuringiensis. Generalized transducing phage that permit inter-species transfer of chromosomal and plasmid DNA have also been described.

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