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Science. 2012 Jul 6;337(6090):88-93. doi: 10.1126/science.1216641.

A single promoter inversion switches Photorhabdus between pathogenic and mutualistic states.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.


Microbial populations stochastically generate variants with strikingly different properties, such as virulence or avirulence and antibiotic tolerance or sensitivity. Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria have a variable life history in which they alternate between pathogens to a wide variety of insects and mutualists to their specific host nematodes. Here, we show that the P. luminescens pathogenic variant (P form) switches to a smaller-cell variant (M form) to initiate mutualism in host nematode intestines. A stochastic promoter inversion causes the switch between the two distinct forms. M-form cells are much smaller (one-seventh the volume), slower growing, and less bioluminescent than P-form cells; they are also avirulent and produce fewer secondary metabolites. Observations of form switching by individual cells in nematodes revealed that the M form persisted in maternal nematode intestines, were the first cells to colonize infective juvenile (IJ) offspring, and then switched to P form in the IJ intestine, which armed these nematodes for the next cycle of insect infection.

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