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Infect Immun. 2011 Aug;79(8):2974-83. doi: 10.1128/IAI.05117-11. Epub 2011 May 16.

Expression of the type 1 pneumococcal pilus is bistable and negatively regulated by the structural component RrgA.

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Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


The pneumococcal type 1 pilus, which is present in 25 to 30% of clinical isolates, has been associated with increased adherence and inflammatory responses and is being evaluated as a potential vaccine candidate. Here we show that expression of the pilus is bistable as a result of the molecular interaction between the transcription activator RrlA and a structural component of the pilus called RrgA. Sampling various clinical pneumococcal isolates that harbor the type 1 pilus-encoding islet, we show that distinct populations of cells can be identified with either undetectable or prominent pilus expression. When these two populations are separated and regrown in liquid medium, they are phenotypically different: the nonexpressing population reverts to the previous bimodal distribution, whereas the expressing population retains the same high level of pilus expression. Controlled exogenous expression of the regulatory pilus gene rlrA in a strain from which the endogenous version has been deleted increases pilus expression steadily, suggesting that the bistable expression of the pilus observed in wild-type cells is dependent on the native rlrA promoter. Finally, we demonstrate that RrgA is a negative regulator of pilus expression and that this repression is likely mediated through direct interaction with RlrA. We conclude that type 1 pilus expression in pneumococcus exhibits a bistable phenotype, which is dependent upon the molecular interplay between the RlrA and RrgA proteins. We suggest that this flexibility in expression may assist adaptation to a range of immune conditions, such as evasion of antipilus antibodies, within potential hosts.

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