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Infect Immun. 2014 May;82(5):1813-22. doi: 10.1128/IAI.01655-13. Epub 2014 Feb 18.

Identification of the Staphylococcus aureus vfrAB operon, a novel virulence factor regulatory locus.

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Center for Staphylococcal Research, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.


During a screen of the Nebraska Transposon Mutant Library, we identified 71 mutations in the Staphylococcus aureus genome that altered hemolysis on blood agar medium. Although many of these mutations disrupted genes known to affect the production of alpha-hemolysin, two of them were associated with an apparent operon, designated vfrAB, that had not been characterized previously. Interestingly, a ΔvfrB mutant exhibited only minor effects on the transcription of the hla gene, encoding alpha-hemolysin, when grown in broth, as well as on RNAIII, a posttranscriptional regulatory RNA important for alpha-hemolysin translation, suggesting that VfrB may function at the posttranscriptional level. Indeed, a ΔvfrB mutant had increased aur and sspAB protease expression under these conditions. However, disruption of the known secreted proteases in the ΔvfrB mutant did not restore hemolytic activity in the ΔvfrB mutant on blood agar. Further analysis revealed that, in contrast to the minor effects of VfrB on hla transcription when strains were cultured in liquid media, the level of hla transcription was decreased 50-fold in the absence of VfrB on solid media. These results demonstrate that while VfrB represses protease expression when strains are grown in broth, hla regulation is highly responsive to factors associated with growth on solid media. Intriguingly, the ΔvfrB mutant displayed increased pathogenesis in a model of S. aureus dermonecrosis, further highlighting the complexity of VfrB-dependent virulence regulation. The results of this study describe a phenotype associated with a class of highly conserved yet uncharacterized proteins found in Gram-positive bacteria, and they shed new light on the regulation of virulence factors necessary for S. aureus pathogenesis.

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