A pinboard by
Evan Hunter

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.


Galactose metabolism plays a crucial role in biofilm formation by Bacillus subtilis.

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

Respiration control of multicellularity in Bacillus subtilis by a complex of the cytochrome chain with a membrane-embedded histidine kinase.

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

D-amino acids indirectly inhibit biofilm formation in Bacillus subtilis by interfering with protein synthesis.

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

An Electrostatic Net Model for the Role of Extracellular DNA in Biofilm Formation by Staphylococcus aureus.

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

The extracellular matrix of Staphylococcus aureus biofilms comprises cytoplasmic proteins that associate with the cell surface in response to decreasing pH.

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