Studies on the Evolution of Aromatic Beta-Glucoside Catabolic Systems under Different Stress Conditions in Escherichia coli
Zangoui Nejad Chahkootahi, Parisa
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The genetic systems involved in the utilisation of aromatic β-glucosides in E. coli consist of the bgl, asc, and chb operons and the locus bglA encoding phospho-β-glucosidase A. The bgl and asc operons are known as cryptic or silent systems since their expression is not sufficient for utilisation of these sugars in wild type strains of E. coli. Their transcriptional activation by different classes of mutations confers a Bgl+ phenotype to the mutant. The maintenance of cryptic genes without accumulating deleterious mutation in spite of being silent is an evolutionary puzzle. Several observations have suggested the possibility that these genes may be expressed under specific physiological conditions conferring a fitness advantage to the organism. The main aim of this study was to investigate the possible role of aromatic β-glucoside catabolic systems of E. coli in combating nutrient stress and microaerobic growth conditions. The results presented in Chapter 2 address the evolution of aromatic β-glucoside catabolic systems when exposed to a novel β-glucoside as the sole substrate. The results indicate that the bgl opeon, the primary system involved in the utilisation of the aromatic β-glucosides arbutin and salicin, is also involved in esculin utilisation. In the absence of bglB encoding the enzyme phospho-β-glucosidase B, activation of the silent asc operon enables esculin utilisation. The bglA gene encoding phospho-β-glucosidase A specific for arbutin, can undergo successive mutations to evolve the ability to hydrolyse esculin and salicin sequentially when bglB and ascB are absent. The Esc+ and Sal+ mutants retain their arbutin+ phenotype, indicating that the mutations enhance the promiscuity of the enzyme. Sequencing data indicate that the first step Esc+ mutant carries a four base insertion within the promoter of the bglA gene that results in enhanced transcription of bglA. RT-PCR studies confirm that both the steady-state levels as well as the half-life of the bglA mRNA are enhanced in the mutant. This is further corroborated by the observation that overexpression of wild type bglA in the parent strain using a multicopy plasmid confers an Esc+ phenotype. The second step Sal+ mutant carries a point mutation within bglA ORF, a thymine to guanine transversion at position 583 (T583G) of the bglA gene, resulting in an amino acid change from cysteine to glycine at position 195 (C195G) of the BglA ORF close to the active site. Presence of a plasmid carrying the T583G mutation, introduced by site-directed mutagenesis, results in a Sal+ phenotype, confirming the role of the transversion in conferring the Sal+ phenotype. Based on docking studies, the positioning of salicin into the substrate binding site of the mutant BglA enzyme is different compared to wild type BglA due to the loss of stearic hindrance for the binding of salicin when C195 is replaced by the smaller amino acid glycine in the mutant protein. These observations indicate that under conditions of nutrient deprivation, exposure to novel substrates can result in the evolution of new metabolic capabilities by the sequential modification of a pre-existing genetic system. In the case of one novel substrate, the mutation results in the overexpression of the hydrolytic enzyme, while in the case of the second substrate, a mutation close to its active site increases its substrate specificity. Results presented in Chapter 3 specifically deal with the involvement of the bgl operon under low levels of oxygen. Earlier observations have shown that there is a 22 fold enhancement in the expression of the bgl operon under anaerobic condition. The present results provide evidence that bgl expression has a physiological role under low levels of oxygen and in addition suggest a possible mechanism for the overexpression of the bgl operon that involves the ArcAB two component system known to mediate regulation under microaerobic and static conditions. Transcription studies using a lacZ reporter fused to the wild type bgl promoter show that there is enhanced transcription from the bgl promoter under microaerobic and static conditions in the presence of arcA encoding the response regulator compared to that in its absence. The positive effect of arcA on the expression of the bgl operon is dispensable in the absence of H-NS since presence or absence of arcA does not change the expression of the bgl operon in an hns-null background, implying that the involvement of ArcA is via antagonizing H-NS. Competition experiments indicate that there is growth advantage associated with the activated allele of the bgl operon under low levels of oxygen since Bgl+ strains carrying the activated allele of the bgl operon as well as strains expressing BglG constitutively can out-compete wild-type strains. Presence of the wild type arcA allele results in a strong growth advantage compared to its absence under static conditions but not aerobic condition. The bgl operon seems to be one of the possible downstream targets of ArcA under static condition since absence of the bgl operon results in a modest reduction of the growth advantage (GASP) phenotype conferred by arcA. The up-regulation of the bgl operon is likely to enable the cells to scavenge available nutrients from their niche more efficiently. These experiments also show that the GASP phenotype associated with BglG constitutive strains under static conditions involves downstream genes that are different from oppA known to be one of the downstream targets during aerobic growth. It is possible that under low level of oxygen, the bgl operon is regulating a different set of downstream genes involving a different mechanism. In summary, the results of this investigation show that the aromatic β-glucoside catabolic systems in E. coli play a role in the generation of new metabolic capabilities via mutations in pre-existing genetic systems as well as through changes in gene expression patterns. The mechanisms outlined in this study are likely to be of broader significance applicable to microbial evolution under stress in general.
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