Understanding the Regulatory Steps that Govern the Activation of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis σK
A distinctive feature of host-pathogen interactions in the case of Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the asymptomatic latent phase of infection. The ability of the bacillus to survive for extended periods of time in the host suggests an adaptive mechanism in M. tuberculosis that can cope with a variety of environmental stresses and other host stimuli. Extensive genomic studies and analysis of knock-out phenotypes revealed elaborate cellular machinery in M. tuberculosis that ensures a rapid cellular response to host stimuli. Prominent amongst these are two-component systems and σ factors that exclusively govern transcription re-engineering in response to environmental stimuli. M. tuberculosis σK is a σ factor that was demonstrated to control the expression of secreted antigenic proteins. The study reported in this thesis was geared to understand the molecular basis for σK activity as well as to explore conditions that would regulate σK activity. Transcription in bacteria is driven by the RNA polymerase enzyme that can associate with multiple σ factors. σ factors confer promoter specificity and thus directly control the expression of genes. The association of different σ factors with the RNA polymerase is essential for the temporal and conditional re-engineering of the expression profile. Environment induced changes in expression rely on a subset of σ factors. This class of σ factors (also referred to as Class IV or Extra-cytoplasmic function (ECF) σ factors) is regulated by a variety of mechanisms. The regulation of an ECF σ factor activity at the transcriptional, translational or posttranslational steps ensures fidelity in the cellular concentration of free, active ECF σ factors. In general, ECF σ factors associate with an inhibitory protein referred to as an anti-σ factor. The release of a free, active σ factor from a σ /anti-σ complex is thus a mechanism that can potentially control the cellular levels of an active σ factor in the cell. M. tuberculosis σK is associated with a membrane bound anti-σK (also referred to as RskA) (Said-Salim et al., Molecular Microbiology 62: 1251-1263: 2006). The extracellular stimulus that is recognized by RskA remains unclear. However, recent studies have suggested the possibility of a regulated proteolytic cascade that can selectively degrade RskA and other membrane associated anti-σ factors. The goal of the study was to understand this regulatory mechanism with a specific focus on the M. tuberculosis σK/RskA complex. The structure of the cytosolic σK/RskA complex and the associated biochemical and biophysical characteristics revealed several features of this /anti-σ complex that were hitherto unclear. In particular, these studies revealed a redox sensitive regulatory mechanism in addition to a regulated proteolytic cascade. These features and an analysis of the M. tuberculosis σK/RskA complex vis-à-vis the other characterized σ/anti σfactor complexes are presented in this thesis. This thesis is organized as follows- Chapter 1 provides an overview of prokaryotic transcription. A brief description of the physiology of M. tuberculosis is presented along with a summary of characterized factors that contribute to the pathogenecity and virulence of this bacillus. The pertinent mechanistic issues of σ/anti-σ factor interactions are placed in the context of environment mediated changes in M. tuberculosis transcription. A summary of studies in this area provides a background of the research leading to this thesis. Chapters 2 and 3 of this thesis describe the structural and mechanistic studies on the σK/RskA complex. The crystal structure of the σK/RskA complex revealed a disulfide bond in domain 4 (σK4). σK4 interacts with the -35 element of the promoter DNA. The disulfide forming cysteines were seen to be conserved in more than 70% of σK homologs, across both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. The conservation of the disulfide-forming cysteines led us to further characterize the role of this disulfide in σK/RskA interactions. These were examined by several biochemical and biophysical experiments. The redox potential of these disulfide bond forming cysteine residues were consistent with the proposed role of a sensor. The crystal structure and biochemical studies thus suggest that M. tuberculosis σK is activated under reducing conditions. Chapter 4 of this thesis describes the progress made thus far in the structural and biochemical characterization of an intra-membrane protease, M. tuberculosis Rip1 (Rv2869c). This protein is an essential component of the proteolytic cascade that selectively cleaves RskA. The proteolytic steps that govern the selective degradation of an anti-σ factor were first characterized in the case of E. coli σE (Li, X. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 106:14837-14842, 2009). This cascade is triggered by the concerted action of a secreted protease (also referred to as a site-1 protease) and a trans-membrane protease (also referred to as a site-2 protease). M. tuberculosis Rip1 was demonstrated to be bona-fide site 2 protease that acts on three anti-σ factors viz., RskA, RslA and RsmA (Sklar et al., Molecular Microbiology 77:605-617; 2010). To further characterize the role of Rip1 in the proteolytic cascade, this intra-membrane protease was cloned, expressed and purified for structural, biochemical and biophysical analysis. The preliminary data on this membrane protein is described in this chapter. The conclusions from the studies reported in this thesis and the scope for future work in this area is described in Chapter 5. Put together, the σK/RskA complex revealed facets of σ/anti-σ factor interactions that were hitherto unrecognized. The most prominent amongst these is the finding that an ECF σfactor can respond to multiple environmental stimuli. Furthermore, as seen in the case of the σK/RskA complex, the σ factor can itself serve as a receptor for redox stimuli. Although speculative, a hypothesis that needs further study is whether these features of the σK/RskA complex contribute to the variable efficacy of the M. bovis BCG vaccine. In this context it is worth noting that σK governs the expression of the prominent secreted antigens- MPT70 and MPT83. The studies reported in this thesis thus suggest several avenues for future research to understand mycobacterial diversity, immunogenicity and features of host-pathogen interactions. The appendix section is divided into two subparts- Appendix 1 of the thesis is a review on peptidase V. This is a chapter in The Handbook of Proteolytic enzymes (Elsevier Press, ISBN:9780123822192). Appendix 2 of the thesis includes technical details and an extended materials and methods section.
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