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Genes Dev. 2017 Aug 1;31(15):1549-1560. doi: 10.1101/gad.303701.117. Epub 2017 Sep 1.

Dissection of the molecular circuitry controlling virulence in Francisella tularensis.

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Department of Biochemistry, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.
Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.
Division of Infectious Diseases, Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Francisella tularensis, the etiological agent of tularemia, is one of the most infectious bacteria known. Because of its extreme pathogenicity, F. tularensis is classified as a category A bioweapon by the US government. F. tularensis virulence stems from genes encoded on the Francisella pathogenicity island (FPI). An unusual set of Francisella regulators-the heteromeric macrophage growth locus protein A (MglA)-stringent starvation protein A (SspA) complex and the DNA-binding protein pathogenicity island gene regulator (PigR)-activates FPI transcription and thus is essential for virulence. Intriguingly, the second messenger, guanosine-tetraphosphate (ppGpp), which is produced during infection, is also involved in coordinating Francisella virulence; however, its role has been unclear. Here we identify MglA-SspA as a novel ppGpp-binding complex and describe structures of apo- and ppGpp-bound MglA-SspA. We demonstrate that MglA-SspA, which binds RNA polymerase (RNAP), also interacts with the C-terminal domain of PigR, thus anchoring the (MglA-SspA)-RNAP complex to the FPI promoter. Furthermore, we show that MglA-SspA must be bound to ppGpp to mediate high-affinity interactions with PigR. Thus, these studies unveil a novel pathway different from those described previously for regulation of transcription by ppGpp. The data also indicate that F. tularensis pathogenesis is controlled by a highly interconnected molecular circuitry in which the virulence machinery directly senses infection via a small molecule stress signal.


Francisella tularensis; MglA; PigR; SspA; bioterrorism; ppGpp; virulence

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