PhD Student, Northeastern University
Bacteria participate in communities and contribute uniquely to its success-- not unlike humans!
The basic building block of life is the cell, a microscopic factory in which a DNA blueprint is used to produce proteins that carry out the necessary functions for life. The human body is composed of trillions of cells that work in synch for the organism to persist. Alternatively, bacteria are typecast as single-celled since they technically grow and divide independently. In nature, however, bacteria are not solitary, but instead participate in vastly complex multicellular communities that are essential for survival. These communities, called biofilms, provide an ecological niche in which bacteria live harmoniously with plants, animals, and other microbes, and protect them from competing microbes. Soil-dwelling bacteria can form biofilms on plant roots, and are beneficial for agriculture; other pathogenic bacteria can pose life-threatening infections when biofilms form on hospital catheters or in the human body. Thus, the elucidation of the signals that govern biofilm formation are essential for eco-friendly farming, as well as improving healthcare. Our lab uses genetic techniques to determine what genes are essential for biofilm formation, and the function of the proteins they encode. We use the model organism Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacterium which forms remarkable biofilms on the surface of agar plates and on liquid media. We hope to lend insight into the vast complexity of the microbial world, with the goal of improving ours.
Abstract: Cells within Bacillus subtilis biofilms are held in place by an extracellular matrix that contains cell-anchored amyloid fibres, composed of the amyloidogenic protein TasA. As biofilms age they disassemble because the cells release the amyloid fibres. This release appears to be the consequence of incorporation of D-tyrosine, D-leucine, D-tryptophan and D-methionine into the cell wall. Here, we characterize the in vivo roles of an accessory protein TapA (TasA anchoring/assembly protein; previously YqxM) that serves both to anchor the fibres to the cell wall and to assemble TasA into fibres. TapA is found in discrete foci in the cell envelope and these foci disappear when cells are treated with a mixture of D-amino acids. Purified cell wall sacculi retain a functional form of this anchoring protein such that purified fibres can be anchored to the sacculi in vitro. In addition, we show that TapA is essential for the proper assembly of the fibres. Its absence results in a dramatic reduction in TasA levels and what little TasA is left produces only thin fibres that are not anchored to the cell.
Pub.: 12 Apr '11, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: The soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis is widely used in agriculture as a biocontrol agent able to protect plants from a variety of pathogens. Protection is thought to involve the formation of bacterial communities - biofilms - on the roots of the plants. Here we used confocal microscopy to visualize biofilms on the surface of the roots of tomato seedlings and demonstrated that biofilm formation requires genes governing the production of the extracellular matrix that holds cells together. We further show that biofilm formation was dependent on the sensor histidine kinase KinD and in particular on an extracellular CACHE domain implicated in small molecule sensing. Finally, we report that exudates of tomato roots strongly stimulated biofilm formation ex planta and that an abundant small molecule in the exudates, (L) -malic acid, was able to stimulate biofilm formation at high concentrations in a manner that depended on the KinD CACHE domain. We propose that small signalling molecules released by the roots of tomato plants are directly or indirectly recognized by KinD, triggering biofilm formation.
Pub.: 22 Jun '12, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Galactose is a common monosaccharide that can be utilized by all living organisms via the activities of three main enzymes that make up the Leloir pathway: GalK, GalT, and GalE. In Bacillus subtilis, the absence of GalE causes sensitivity to exogenous galactose, leading to rapid cell lysis. This effect can be attributed to the accumulation of toxic galactose metabolites, since the galE mutant is blocked in the final step of galactose catabolism. In a screen for suppressor mutants restoring viability to a galE null mutant in the presence of galactose, we identified mutations in sinR, which is the major biofilm repressor gene. These mutations caused an increase in the production of the exopolysaccharide (EPS) component of the biofilm matrix. We propose that UDP-galactose is the toxic galactose metabolite and that it is used in the synthesis of EPS. Thus, EPS production can function as a shunt mechanism for this toxic molecule. Additionally, we demonstrated that galactose metabolism genes play an essential role in B. subtilis biofilm formation and that the expressions of both the gal and eps genes are interrelated. Finally, we propose that B. subtilis and other members of the Bacillus genus may have evolved to utilize naturally occurring polymers of galactose, such as galactan, as carbon sources.Bacteria switch from unicellular to multicellular states by producing extracellular matrices that contain exopolysaccharides. In such aggregates, known as biofilms, bacteria are more resistant to antibiotics. This makes biofilms a serious problem in clinical settings. The resilience of biofilms makes them very useful in industrial settings. Thus, understanding the production of biofilm matrices is an important problem in microbiology. In studying the synthesis of the biofilm matrix of Bacillus subtilis, we provide further understanding of a long-standing microbiological observation that certain mutants defective in the utilization of galactose became sensitive to it. In this work, we show that the toxicity observed before was because cells were grown under conditions that were not propitious to produce the exopolysaccharide component of the matrix. When cells are grown under conditions that favor matrix production, the toxicity of galactose is relieved. This allowed us to demonstrate that galactose metabolism is essential for the synthesis of the extracellular matrix.
Pub.: 16 Aug '12, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Bacillus subtilis and other Bacilli have long been used as biological control agents against plant bacterial diseases but the mechanisms by which the bacteria confer protection are not well understood. Our goal in this study was to isolate strains of B. subtilis that exhibit high levels of biocontrol efficacy from natural environments and to investigate the mechanisms by which these strains confer plant protection. We screened a total of 60 isolates collected from various locations across China and obtained six strains that exhibited above 50% biocontrol efficacy on tomato plants against the plant pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum under greenhouse conditions. These wild strains were able to form robust biofilms both in defined medium and on tomato plant roots and exhibited strong antagonistic activities against various plant pathogens in plate assays. We show that plant protection by those strains depended on widely conserved genes required for biofilm formation, including regulatory genes and genes for matrix production. We provide evidence suggesting that matrix production is critical for bacterial colonization on plant root surfaces. Finally, we have established a model system for studies of B. subtilis-tomato plant interactions in protection against a plant pathogen.
Pub.: 01 Sep '12, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Many bacteria on earth exist in surface-attached communities known as biofilms. These films are responsible for manifold problems, including hospital-acquired infections and biofouling, but they can also be beneficial. Biofilm growth depends on the transport of nutrients and waste, for which diffusion is thought to be the main source of transport. However, diffusion is ineffective for transport over large distances and thus should limit growth. Nevertheless, biofilms can grow to be very large. Here we report the presence of a remarkable network of well-defined channels that form in wild-type Bacillus subtilis biofilms and provide a system for enhanced transport. We observe that these channels have high permeability to liquid flow and facilitate the transport of liquid through the biofilm. In addition, we find that spatial variations in evaporative flux from the surface of these biofilms provide a driving force for the flow of liquid in the channels. These channels offer a remarkably simple system for liquid transport, and their discovery provides insight into the physiology and growth of biofilms.
Pub.: 29 Dec '12, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Biofilms are ubiquitous communities of tightly associated bacteria encased in an extracellular matrix. Bacillus subtilis has long served as a robust model organism to examine the molecular mechanisms of biofilm formation, and a number of studies have revealed that this process is regulated by several integrated pathways. In this Review, we focus on the molecular mechanisms that control B. subtilis biofilm assembly, and then briefly summarize the current state of knowledge regarding biofilm disassembly. We also discuss recent progress that has expanded our understanding of B. subtilis biofilm formation on plant roots, which are a natural habitat for this soil bacterium.
Pub.: 29 Jan '13, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Bacillus subtilis is a plant-beneficial Gram-positive bacterium widely used as a biofertilizer. However, relatively little is known regarding the molecular processes underlying this bacterium's ability to colonize roots. In contrast, much is known about how this bacterium forms matrix-enclosed multicellular communities (biofilms) in vitro. Here, we show that, when B. subtilis colonizes Arabidopsis thaliana roots it forms biofilms that depend on the same matrix genes required in vitro. B. subtilis biofilm formation was triggered by certain plant polysaccharides. These polysaccharides served as a signal for biofilm formation transduced via the kinases controlling the phosphorylation state of the master regulator Spo0A. In addition, plant polysaccharides are used as a source of sugars for the synthesis of the matrix exopolysaccharide. The bacterium's response to plant polysaccharides was observed across several different strains of the species, some of which are known to have beneficial effects on plants. These observations provide evidence that biofilm genes are crucial for Arabidopsis root colonization by B. subtilis and provide insights into how matrix synthesis may be triggered by this plant.
Pub.: 10 Apr '13, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Bacillus subtilis forms organized multicellular communities known as biofilms wherein the individual cells are held together by a self-produced extracellular matrix. The environmental signals that promote matrix synthesis remain largely unknown. We discovered that one such signal is impaired respiration. Specifically, high oxygen levels suppressed synthesis of the extracellular matrix. In contrast, low oxygen levels, in the absence of an alternative electron acceptor, led to increased matrix production. The response to impaired respiration was blocked in a mutant lacking cytochromes caa3 and bc and markedly reduced in a mutant lacking kinase KinB. Mass spectrometry of proteins associated with KinB showed that the kinase was in a complex with multiple components of the aerobic respiratory chain. We propose that KinB is activated via a redox switch involving interaction of its second transmembrane segment with one or more cytochromes under conditions of reduced electron transport. In addition, a second kinase (KinA) contributes to the response to impaired respiration. Evidence suggests that KinA is activated by a decrease in the nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD(+))/NADH ratio via binding of NAD(+) to the kinase in a PAS domain A-dependent manner. Thus, B. subtilis switches from a unicellular to a multicellular state by two pathways that independently respond to conditions of impaired respiration.
Pub.: 20 Apr '13, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: The soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis forms biofilms on surfaces and at air-liquid interfaces. It was previously reported that these biofilms disassemble late in their life cycle and that conditioned medium from late-stage biofilms inhibits biofilm formation. Such medium contained a mixture of D-leucine, D-methionine, D-tryptophan, and D-tyrosine and was reported to inhibit biofilm formation via the incorporation of these D-amino acids into the cell wall. Here, we show that L-amino acids were able to specifically reverse the inhibitory effects of their cognate D-amino acids. We also show that D-amino acids inhibited growth and the expression of biofilm matrix genes at concentrations that inhibit biofilm formation. Finally, we report that the strain routinely used to study biofilm formation has a mutation in the gene (dtd) encoding D-tyrosyl-tRNA deacylase, an enzyme that prevents the misincorporation of D-amino acids into protein in B. subtilis. When we repaired the dtd gene, B. subtilis became resistant to the biofilm-inhibitory effects of D-amino acids without losing the ability to incorporate at least one noncanonical D-amino acid, D-tryptophan, into the peptidoglycan peptide side chain. We conclude that the susceptibility of B. subtilis to the biofilm-inhibitory effects of D-amino acids is largely, if not entirely, due to their toxic effects on protein synthesis.
Pub.: 08 Oct '13, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: The ability to form multicellular communities known as biofilms is a widespread adaptive behavior of bacteria. Members of the Bacillus group of bacteria have been found to form biofilms on plant roots, where they protect against pathogens and promote growth. In the case of the model bacterium Bacillus subtilis the genetic pathway controlling biofilm formation and the production of an extracellular matrix is relatively well understood. However, it is unclear whether other members of this genus utilize similar mechanisms. We determined that a plant-associated strain of Bacillus cereus (905) can form biofilms by two seemingly independent pathways. In one mode involving the formation of floating biofilms (pellicles) B. cereus 905 appears to rely on orthologs of many of the genes known to be important for B. subtilis biofilm formation. We report that B. cereus 905 also forms submerged, surface-associated biofilms and in a manner that resembles biofilm formation by the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus. This alternative mode, which does not rely on B. subtilis-like genes for pellicle formation, takes place under conditions of glucose fermentation and depends on a drop in the pH of the medium.
Pub.: 02 Apr '15, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Biofilm formation by Bacillus subtilis is largely governed by a circuit in which the response regulator Spo0A turns on the gene for the anti-repressor SinI. SinI, in turn, binds to and inactivates SinR, a dedicated repressor of genes for matrix production. Mutants of the genes ylbF, ymcA and yaaT are blocked in biofilm formation, but the mechanism by which they act has been mysterious. A recent report attributed their role in biofilm formation to stimulating Spo0A activity. However, we detect no measurable effect on the transcription of sinI. Instead, we find that the block in biofilm formation is caused by an increase in the levels of SinR and of its mRNA. Evidence is presented that YlbF, YmcA and YaaT interact with, and control the activity of, RNase Y, which is known to destabilize sinR mRNA. We also show that the processing of another target of RNase Y, cggR-gapA mRNA, similarly depends on YlbF and YmcA. Our work suggests that sinR mRNA stability is an additional posttranscriptional control mechanism governing the switch to multicellularity and raises the possibility that YlbF, YmcA and YaaT broadly regulate mRNA stability as part of an RNase Y-containing, multi-subunit complex.
Pub.: 06 Oct '15, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Sporulation in Bacillus subtilis is governed by a cascade of alternative RNA polymerase sigma factors. We previously identified a small protein Fin that is produced under the control of the sporulation sigma factor σ(F) to create a negative feedback loop that inhibits σ(F) -directed gene transcription. Cells deleted for fin are defective for spore formation and exhibit increased levels of σ(F) -directed gene transcription. Based on pull-down experiments, chemical crosslinking, bacterial two-hybrid experiments, and nuclear magnetic resonance chemical shift analysis, we now report that Fin binds to RNA polymerase and specifically to the coiled-coil region of the β' subunit. The coiled-coil is a docking site for sigma factors on RNA polymerase, and evidence is presented that the binding of Fin and σ(F) to RNA polymerase is mutually exclusive. We propose that Fin functions by a mechanism distinct from that of classic sigma factor antagonists (anti-σ factors), which bind directly to a target sigma factor to prevent its association with RNA polymerase, and instead functions to inhibit σ(F) by competing for binding to the β' coiled-coil. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Pub.: 10 Jun '17, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Staphylococcus aureus is an important human pathogen that can form biofilms on various surfaces. These cell communities are protected from the environment by a self-produced extracellular matrix composed of proteins, DNA, and polysaccharide. The exact compositions and roles of the different components are not fully understood. In this study, we investigated the role of extracellular DNA (eDNA) and its interaction with the recently identified cytoplasmic proteins that have a moonlighting role in the biofilm matrix. These matrix proteins associate with the cell surface upon the drop in pH that naturally occurs during biofilm formation, and we found here that this association is independent of eDNA. Conversely, the association of eDNA with the matrix was dependent on matrix proteins. Both proteinase and DNase treatments severely reduced clumping of resuspended biofilms; highlighting the importance of both proteins and eDNA in connecting cells together. By adding an excess of exogenous DNA to DNase-treated biofilm, clumping was partially restored, confirming the crucial role of eDNA in the interconnection of cells. On the basis of our results, we propose that eDNA acts as an electrostatic net, interconnecting cells surrounded by positively charged matrix proteins at a low pH.Extracellular DNA (eDNA) is an important component of the biofilm matrix of diverse bacteria, but its role in biofilm formation is not well understood. Here we report that in Staphylococcus aureus, eDNA associates with cells in a manner that depends on matrix proteins and that eDNA is required to link cells together in the biofilm. These results confirm previous studies that showed that eDNA is an important component of the S. aureus biofilm matrix and also suggest that eDNA acts as an electrostatic net that tethers cells together via the proteinaceous layer of the biofilm matrix.
Pub.: 30 Sep '15, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Biofilm formation by Staphylococcus aureus involves the formation of an extracellular matrix, but the composition of this matrix has been uncertain. Here we report that the matrix is largely composed of cytoplasmic proteins that reversibly associate with the cell surface in a manner that depends on pH. We propose a model for biofilm formation in which cytoplasmic proteins are released from cells in stationary phase. These proteins associate with the cell surface in response to decreasing pH during biofilm formation. Rather than utilizing a dedicated matrix protein, S. aureus appears to recycle cytoplasmic proteins that moonlight as components of the extracellular matrix.Staphylococcus aureus is a leading cause of multiantibiotic-resistant nosocomial infections and is often found growing as a biofilm in catheters and chronic wounds. Biofilm formation is an important pathogenicity strategy that enhances resistance to antimicrobials, thereby limiting treatment options and ultimately contributing to increased morbidity and mortality. Cells in a biofilm are held together by an extracellular matrix that consists in whole or in part of protein, but the nature of the proteins in the S. aureus matrix is not well understood. Here we postulate that S. aureus recycles proteins from the cytoplasm to form the extracellular matrix. This strategy, of cytoplasmic proteins moonlighting as matrix proteins, could allow enhanced flexibility and adaptability for S. aureus in forming biofilms under infection conditions and could promote the formation of mixed-species biofilms in chronic wounds.
Pub.: 04 Sep '14, Pinned: 28 Jun '17
Abstract: Microbes transiently differentiate into distinct, specialized cell types to generate functional diversity and cope with changing environmental conditions. Though alternate programs often entail radically different physiological and morphological states, recent single-cell studies have revealed that these crucial decisions are often left to chance. In these cases, the underlying genetic circuits leverage the intrinsic stochasticity of intracellular chemistry to drive transition between states. Understanding how these circuits transform transient gene expression fluctuations into lasting phenotypic programs will require a combination of quantitative modeling and extensive, time-resolved observation of switching events in single cells. In this article, we survey microbial cell fate decisions demonstrated to involve a random element, describe theoretical frameworks for understanding stochastic switching between states, and highlight recent advances in microfluidics that will enable characterization of key dynamic features of these circuits.
Pub.: 04 Sep '15, Pinned: 28 Jun '17