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BMC Biol. 2007 Mar 28;5:14.

A novel role for RecA under non-stress: promotion of swarming motility in Escherichia coli K-12.

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Departamento de Biotecnología Microbiana, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología, Madrid, Spain.



Bacterial motility is a crucial factor in the colonization of natural environments. Escherichia coli has two flagella-driven motility types: swimming and swarming. Swimming motility consists of individual cell movement in liquid medium or soft semisolid agar, whereas swarming is a coordinated cellular behaviour leading to a collective movement on semisolid surfaces. It is known that swimming motility can be influenced by several types of environmental stress. In nature, environmentally induced DNA damage (e.g. UV irradiation) is one of the most common types of stress. One of the key proteins involved in the response to DNA damage is RecA, a multifunctional protein required for maintaining genome integrity and the generation of genetic variation.


The ability of E. coli cells to develop swarming migration on semisolid surfaces was suppressed in the absence of RecA. However, swimming motility was not affected. The swarming defect of a DeltarecA strain was fully complemented by a plasmid-borne recA gene. Although the DeltarecA cells grown on semisolid surfaces exhibited flagellar production, they also presented impaired individual movement as well as a fully inactive collective swarming migration. Both the comparative analysis of gene expression profiles in wild-type and DeltarecA cells grown on a semisolid surface and the motility of lexA1 [Ind-] mutant cells demonstrated that the RecA effect on swarming does not require induction of the SOS response. By using a RecA-GFP fusion protein we were able to segregate the effect of RecA on swarming from its other functions. This protein fusion failed to regulate the induction of the SOS response, the recombinational DNA repair of UV-treated cells and the genetic recombination, however, it was efficient in rescuing the swarming motility defect of the DeltarecA mutant. The RecA-GFP protein retains a residual ssDNA-dependent ATPase activity but does not perform DNA strand exchange.


The experimental evidence presented in this work supports a novel role for RecA: the promotion of swarming motility. The defective swarming migration of DeltarecA cells does not appear to be associated with defective flagellar production; rather, it seems to be associated with an abnormal flagellar propulsion function. Our results strongly suggest that the RecA effect on swarming motility does not require an extensive canonical RecA nucleofilament formation. RecA is the first reported cellular factor specifically affecting swarming but not swimming motility in E. coli. The integration of two apparently disconnected biologically important processes, such as the maintenance of genome integrity and motility in a unique protein, may have important evolutive consequences.

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