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J Bacteriol. 2011 Mar;193(6):1436-48. doi: 10.1128/JB.01227-10. Epub 2011 Jan 7.

The integrity of the periplasmic domain of the VirA sensor kinase is critical for optimal coordination of the virulence signal response in Agrobacterium tumefaciens.

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Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, 415 South University Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6018, USA.


The plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefaciens responds to three main signals at the plant-bacterium interface: phenolics, such as acetosyringone (AS), monosaccharides, and acidic pH (∼5.5). These signals are transduced via the chromosomally encoded sugar binding protein ChvE and the Ti plasmid-encoded VirA/VirG two-component regulatory system, resulting in the transcriptional activation of the Ti plasmid virulence genes. Here, we present genetic and physical evidence that the periplasmic domain of VirA dimerizes independently of other parts of the protein, and we examine the effects of several engineered mutations in the periplasmic and transmembrane regions of VirA on vir-inducing capacity as indicated by AS sensitivity and maximal level of vir-inducing activity at saturating AS levels. The data indicate that helix-breaking mutations throughout the periplasmic domain of VirA or mutations that reposition the second transmembrane domain (TM2) of VirA relieve the periplasmic domain's repressive effects on the maximal activity of this kinase in response to phenolics, effects normally relieved only when ChvE, sugars, and low pH are also present. Such relief, however, does not sensitize VirA to low concentrations of phenolics, the other major effect of the ChvE-sugar and low pH signals. We further demonstrate that amino acid residues in a small Trg-like motif in the periplasmic domain of VirA are crucial for transmission of the ChvE-sugar signal to the cytoplasmic domain. These experiments provide evidence that small perturbations in the periplasmic domain of VirA can uncouple sugar-mediated changes in AS sensitivity from the sugar-mediated effects on maximal activity.

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