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Abstract

Although mycobacteria are known to accumulate polyphosphate (PolyP), a linear polymer of orthophosphate, when subjected to stresses, the exact roles of this molecule are not yet clearly understood. We found that deletion of the pstA gene encoding for a transmembrane domain of the high-affinity phosphate-specific ABC transporter system (Pst system) resulted in accumulation of high amounts of PolyP during growth in phosphate (Pi)-replete conditions in Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium smegmatis. These PolyP stores were gradually used during Pi starvation by the ApstA mutants in order to sustain growth and this allowed the mutant strains to reach a higher cell density than the wild-type (WT) parental strain. Neither the mRNA nor the protein levels of polyphosphate kinase 1 (PPK1) could explain the PolyP accumulation observed in the mutant, suggesting that another regulatory mechanism is involved. The ApstA mutant of M. smegmatis was hypersensitive to several in vitro stresses, including detergent, oxidative stress, and cell wall targeting antibiotics. Deletion of the main enzyme involved in PolyP synthesis, PPK1, in the ApstA mutant background of M. smegmatis completely reversed the PolyP accumulation and partially reversed the stress sensitivity as well as the derepression of PHO regulon genes observed in the ApstA mutant. The mechanism of PolyP accumulation in M. smegmatis was investigated using a genetic approach. We found that this mechanism differs from the (p)ppGpp-mediated PolyP accumulation observed in Escherichia coli, since deletion of the RelA enzyme in a ApstA mutant background did not prevent PolyP accumulation. The mechanism of PolyP degradation during Pi starvation in the M. smegmatis ApstA mutant was also analyzed. Deletion of both polyphosphatase enzymes (PPX1 and PPX2) as well as the polyphosphate kinase 2 (PPK2) enzyme did not have any impact on PolyP degradation. PPK1 is a bifunctional enzyme that can either synthesize or degrade PolyP. Our current hypothesis is that PPK1 might perform the reverse reaction (PolyP degradation) during Pi starvation. The aim of the second part of my project was to make a comparative study of the expression and regulation of the phosphate specific transporter (pst) operon in fast-growing [M. smegmatis] and slow-growing [M. tuberculosis] mycobacteria. To achieve this goal, pst reporter strains of M. smegmatis and M. tuberculosis were constructed by precise insertion of a modified dest_gfp gene (provided by Giulia Manina) encoding a destabilized green fluorescent protein (dest_GFP) into the corresponding pst locus as transcriptional ) fusions. The transcriptional reporter construct [p) was introduced in both the WT and the ApstA mutant backgrounds. The kinetics of induction of the pst-gfp reporters in WT and ApstA mutant strains in response to Pi starvation was analyzed. Population-averaged measurements were made using qRT-PCR and Western blotting. Single-cell measurements using flow cytometry and timelapse fluorescence microscopy were also performed. For the microscopy experiments, the bacteria were cultured in custom-made microfluidic devices that permit rapid switching of the culture medium, e.g., switching between Pi-replete and Pi-depleted media. Because these studies require precise environmental control and resolution of individual and temporal phenotypes, my principal experimental tool was the integrated microfluidics and timelapse fluorescence microscopy systems that have recently been developed in the laboratory. Although there have been many studies published on the population-averaged behavior of bacteria responding to external stresses such as Pi limitation, we are not aware of any studies addressing the individuality of such responses using a real-time single-cell approach. We observed that the kinetics of induction of the Pst operon upon Pi starvation scaled with the growth rate of the bacteria and peak induction occurred within about two generations for both smegmatis and tuberculosis. Interestingly, we found that the basal level of Pst expression and the steady state level reached upon induction by Pi starvation were similar in tuberculosis and M. smegmatis, although the kinetics of induction were much faster in M. smegmatis. These studies contributed to improve the understanding of the regulation and the kinetics of response of the PHO regulon in fast- and slow-growing mycobacteria. The finding that PolyP plays a role in this process could also apply to other organisms where the PHO regulon is regulated in a similar way.

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