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Methods Enzymol. 2010;471:229-51. doi: 10.1016/S0076-6879(10)71013-2. Epub 2010 Mar 1.

Potassium sensing histidine kinase in Bacillus subtilis.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


The soil-dwelling organism Bacillus subtilis is able to form multicellular aggregates known as biofilms. It was recently reported that the process of biofilm formation is activated in response to the presence of various, structurally diverse small-molecule natural products. All of these small-molecule natural products made pores in the membrane of the bacterium, causing the leakage of potassium cations from the cytoplasm of the cell. The potassium cation leakage was sensed by the membrane histidine kinase KinC, triggering the genetic pathway to the production of the extracellular matrix that holds cells within the biofilm. This chapter presents the methodology used to characterize the leakage of cytoplasmic potassium as the signal that induces biofilm formation in B. subtilis via activation of KinC. Development of novel techniques to monitor activation of gene expression in microbial populations led us to discover the differentiation of a subpopulation of cells specialized to produce the matrix that holds all cells together within the biofilm. This phenomenon of cell differentiation was previously missed by conventional techniques used to monitor transcriptional gene expression.

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