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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Sep 14;107(37):16286-90. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008368107. Epub 2010 Aug 30.

Imaging mass spectrometry of intraspecies metabolic exchange revealed the cannibalistic factors of Bacillus subtilis.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.


During bacterial cannibalism, a differentiated subpopulation harvests nutrients from their genetically identical siblings to allow continued growth in nutrient-limited conditions. Hypothesis-driven imaging mass spectrometry (IMS) was used to identify metabolites active in a Bacillus subtilis cannibalism system in which sporulating cells lyse nonsporulating siblings. Two candidate molecules with sequences matching the products of skfA and sdpC, genes for the proposed cannibalistic factors sporulation killing factor (SKF) and sporulation delaying protein (SDP), respectively, were identified and the structures of the final products elucidated. SKF is a cyclic 26-amino acid (aa) peptide that is posttranslationally modified with one disulfide and one cysteine thioether bridged to the α-position of a methionine, a posttranslational modification not previously described in biology. SDP is a 42-residue peptide with one disulfide bridge. In spot test assays on solid medium, overproduced SKF and SDP enact a cannibalistic killing effect with SDP having higher potency. However, only purified SDP affected B. subtilis cells in liquid media in fluorescence microscopy and growth assays. Specifically, SDP treatment delayed growth in a concentration-dependent manner, caused increases in cell permeability, and ultimately caused cell lysis accompanied by the production of membrane tubules and spheres. Similarly, SDP but not SKF was able to inhibit the growth of the pathogens Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis with comparable IC(50) to vancomycin. This investigation, with the identification of SKF and SDP structures, highlights the strength of IMS in investigations of metabolic exchange of microbial colonies and also demonstrates IMS as a promising approach to discover novel biologically active molecules.

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