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Environ Microbiol. 2000 Apr;2(2):169-77.

Regulation of urease gene expression by Streptococcus salivarius growing in biofilms.

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Center for Oral Biology and Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY 14642, USA.


The metabolism of urea by urease enzymes of oral bacteria profoundly influences oral biofilm pH homeostasis and oral microbial ecology. The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the regulation of expression of the low pH-inducible urease genes in populations of Streptococcus salivarius growing in vitro in biofilms and to explore whether urease regulation or the levels of urease expression in biofilm cells differed significantly from planktonic cells. Two strains of S. salivarius harbouring urease promoter fusions to a chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (cat) gene were used: PurelCAT, containing a fusion to the full-length, pH-sensitive promoter; or Pureldelta100CAT, a constitutively derepressed deletion derivative of the urease gene promoter. The strains were grown in a Rototorque biofilm reactor in a tryptone-yeast extract-sucrose medium with or without pH control. Both CAT and urease activities in biofilms were measured at 'quasi-steady state' and after a 25mM glucose pulse. The results showed that CAT expression in PurelCAT was repressed at relatively neutral pH values, and that expression could be induced by acidic pH after carbohydrate challenge. Biofilms of PurelCAT grown at low pH, without buffering, had about 20-fold higher CAT levels, and only a modest further induction could be elicited with carbohydrate pulsing. The levels of CAT in biofilms of PurelCAT grown in buffered medium were slightly higher than those reported for planktonic cells cultured at pH 7.0, and the levels of CAT in Purel-CAT growing at low pH or after induction were similar to those reported for fully induced planktonic cells. CAT activity in Pureldelta100CAT was constitutively high, regardless of growth conditions. Interestingly, urease activity detected in biofilms of the parent strain, S. salivarius 57.1, could be as much as 130-fold higher than that reported for fluid chemostat cultures grown under similar conditions. The higher level of urease activity in biofilms was probably caused by the accumulation of the stable urease enzyme within biofilm cells, low pH microenvironments and the growth phase of populations of cells in the biofilm. The ability of S. salivarius biofilm cells to upregulate urease expression in response to pH gradients and to accumulate greater quantities of urease enzyme when growing in biofilms may have a significant impact on oral biofilm pH homeostasis and microbial ecology in vivo. Additionally, S. salivarius carrying the pH-sensitive urease gene promoter fused to an appropriate reporter gene may be a useful biological probe for sensing biofilm pH in situ.

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