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J Biol Chem. 2013 Jan 11;288(2):1286-94. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M112.421008. Epub 2012 Nov 21.

The Escherichia coli toxin MqsR destabilizes the transcriptional repression complex formed between the antitoxin MqsA and the mqsRA operon promoter.

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Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biotechnology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA.


Bacterial biofilms are complex communities of cells containing an increased prevalence of dormant cells known as persisters, which are characterized by an up-regulation of genes known as toxin-antitoxin (TA) modules. The association of toxins with their cognate antitoxins neutralizes toxin activity, allowing for normal cell growth. Additionally, protein antitoxins bind their own promoters and repress transcription, whereas the toxins serve as co-repressors. Recently, TA pairs have been shown to regulate their own transcription through a phenomenon known as conditional cooperativity, where the TA complexes bind operator DNA and repress transcription only when present in the proper stoichiometric amounts. The most differentially up-regulated gene in persister cells is mqsR, a gene that, with the antitoxin mqsA, constitutes a TA module. Here, we reveal that, unlike other TA systems, MqsR is not a transcription co-repressor but instead functions to destabilize the MqsA-DNA complex. We further show that DNA binding is not regulated by conditional cooperativity. Finally, using biophysical studies, we show that complex formation between MqsR and MqsA results in an exceptionally stable interaction, resulting in a subnanomolar dissociation constant that is similar to that observed between MqsA and DNA. In combination with crystallographic studies, this work reveals that MqsA binding to DNA and MqsR is mutually exclusive. To our knowledge, this is the first TA system in which the toxin does not function as a transcriptional co-repressor, but instead functions to destabilize the antitoxin-operator complex under all conditions, and thus defines another unique feature of the mqsRA TA module.

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