Characterization of symbiotically important processes in Sinorhizobium meliloti

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Virginia Tech

Bacteria perform biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) which leads to conversion of N2 to ammonia. One of the best studied models of BNF is the symbiotic association of Sinorhizobium meliloti - Medicago sativa (alfalfa). Since alfalfa is a major source of animal feed and the fourth largest crop grown in the USA, enhanced understanding of this symbiosis can have implications for increasing crop yields, reducing environmental contamination and food costs. Studies discussed here focus on two symbiotically important bacterial traits, type IVb pili and chemotaxis.

Chapter 2 characterizes S. meliloti type IVb pili encoded by flp-1 and establishes their role in nodulation. Bundle-forming pili were visualized in wild-type cells, while cells lacking pilA1, the pilin-encoding gene, showed an absence of pili. Competitive nodulation assays with alfalfa concluded that cells lacking pili had a significant nodulation defect. Regulation of pilA1 expression via a quorum sensing regulator, ExpR, was confirmed.

Chapter 3 describes the role of the flp-2 cluster in establishing symbiosis. PilA2 is a pilin subunit encoded from flp-2. The pilA2 deletion strain was defective in nodulation by 31% as compared to the wild type. A non-significant change in nodulation was seen in pilA1pilA2 strain. Thus, both flp-1 and flp-2 have a significant role in establishing symbiosis.

Chapter 4 focuses on the deviations of S. meliloti chemotaxis from the enterobacterial paradigm. Transcriptional fusions showed that S. meliloti chemoreceptors (MCPs) are class III genes and regulated by FlbT. Quantitative immunoblots determined the cellular amounts of chemoreceptors. Chemoreceptors were grouped in three classes; high, low, and extremely-low abundance, similar to the high and low abundance chemoreceptors of Escherichia coli. Importantly, the MCP:CheA ratio in an S. meliloti cell was observed to be 37:1, similar to that in Bacillus subtilis of 24:1, but quite different from that in E. coli of 3.4:1. In conclusion, our data indicates that soil bacteria may have optimized their chemotaxis system based on their milieu, which is different from enteric bacteria.

These studies have enhanced our understanding of two symbiotically important processes in S. meliloti, and pave the way for future manipulations of the system to increase symbiosis and reduce our dependence on synthetic fertilizers.

Chemotaxis, exopolysaccharides, motility, nodulation, type IVb pili