Pantoea stewartii subsp. stewartii is a bacterium that causes Stewart’s wilt disease in corn plants. The bacteria are transmitted to the plants via an insect vector, the corn flea beetle Chaetocnema pulicaria. Once in the plant, the bacteria migrate to the xylem and grow to high cell densities, forming a biofilm by secreting excess capsular exopolysaccharide, which blocks water transport and causes wilting. The timing of virulence factor synthesis is regulated by the cell-density dependent quorum sensing (QS) system. Such temporal regulation is crucial in establishing infection and is orchestrated by the QS-dependent transcriptional regulator EsaR. EsaR represses expression of capsular exopolysaccharide at low cell densities. At high cell densities, an acylated homoserine lactone (AHL) molecule produced during growth by the cognate AHL-synthase EsaI accumulates. The AHL binds to and inactivates EsaR, causing derepression of capsule production.
EsaR is a member of the LuxR family of QS-dependent transcriptional factors. Most LuxR homologs are unstable and/or insoluble in the absence of AHL which has hindered structural studies. Chapter Two describes the changes in the structure of EsaR due to binding of AHL ligand as determined through biochemical methods. EsaR was found to be stable and retain its multimeric state in the absence or presence of AHL, but intra- and inter-domain changes occurred that affect its DNA-binding capacity.
Apart from repressing expression of capsule at low cell-densities, EsaR represses its own expression and activates production of a small RNA, EsaS, with unknown function. In Chapter Three a proteomic approach was used to identify an additional 30 QS-controlled proteins. Genes encoding three of these proteins are directly regulated by EsaR and the EsaR binding sites in the respective promoters were defined. In Chapter Four, a high-throughput RNA-Seq method identified even more genes in the QS regulon that the proteomic approach overlooked. RNA-Seq analysis of rRNA-depleted RNA from two strains of P. stewartii was used as a screen to help identify 11 promoters, subsequently shown to be directly regulated by EsaR in vitro. Most of the genes controlled by QS grouped into three major physiological responses, capsule & cell wall production, surface motility & adhesion and stress response. In Chapter Five, the role of two QS regulated genes, dkgA (encoding 2, 5-diketo-D-gluconate) and lrhA (encoding a repressor of chemotaxis, adhesion and motility), in plant virulence were examined.
These studies have better characterized the QS regulator EsaR and its interaction with the AHL ligand, and shown that QS has a more global response in P. stewartii than previously recognized. Further characterization of the genes identified in this study could facilitate identification of factors crucial in plant pathogenesis or insect-vector symbiosis and aid in the development of molecular-based approaches for possible disease intervention.