Elucidation of the Specificity of S. meliloti Chemoreceptors for Host Derived Attractants


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Virginia Tech


The bacterium Sinorhizobium (Ensifer) meliloti is a member of the Rhizobiaceae family and can enter a mutualistic, diazotrophic relationship with most plants of the genera Medicago, Melilotus, and Trigonella. Medicago sativa (alfalfa) is an agriculturally important legume that hosts S. meliloti and allows the bacterium to invade the plant root and begin fixing nitrogen. Prior to invasion, S. meliloti exists as a free living bacterium and must navigate through the soil to find alfalfa, using chemical signals secreted by the root. Alfalfa is the 4th most cultivated crop in the United States, therefore, identification of plant host signals that lure S. meliloti, and identification of the bacterium's chemoreceptors that perceive the signals can aid in propagating the symbiosis more efficiently, thus leading to greater crop yields. Investigations here focus on discovering alfalfa derived attractant signals and matching them to their respective chemoreceptors in S. meliloti. We have determined the chemotactic potency of alfalfa seed exudate and characterized and quantified two classes of attractant compounds exuded by germinating alfalfa seeds, namely, amino acids and quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs). At all points possible, we have compared alfalfa with the closely related non-host, spotted medic (Medicago arabica). The chemotactic potency of alfalfa seed exudate is the same as spotted medic seed exudate, however, the attractant compositions are chemically different. The amount of each proteinogenic amino acid (AA) exuded by spotted medic is slightly greater than the amounts exuded by alfalfa. In addition, the five QACs studied are exuded in various amounts between the two Medicago species. In comparison, the total amount of proteinogenic AAs exuded be alfalfa and spotted medic are 2.01 μg/seed and 1.94 μg/seed respectively, and the total amount of QACs exuded are 249 ng/seed and 221 ng/seed respectively. By performing a chemotaxis assay with synthetic AA mixtures mimicking the amounts exuded from the medics, it was found that the AA mixtures contribute to 23% and 37% of the responses to alfalfa and spotted medic exudates, respectively. The chemoreceptor McpU was found to be the most important chemoreceptor of the eight for chemotaxis to the whole exudates and the AA mixtures. Furthermore, McpU is shown to mediate chemotaxis to 19 of 20 AAs excluding aspartate. McpU directly interacts with 18 AAs and indirectly mediates chemotaxis to glutamate. Through single amino acid residue substitutions, it is determined that McpU directly binds to amino acids in the annotated region called the Cache_1 domain, likely utilizing residues D155 and D182 to interact with the amino group of AA ligands. In all, McpU is a direct sensor for AAs except for the acidic AAs aspartate and glutamate. Work is presented to show that the QACs betonicine, choline, glycine betaine, stachydrine, and trigonelline are potent attractants for S. meliloti, McpX is the most important chemoreceptor for chemotaxis to these QACs, and we demonstrate the binding strength of McpX to the QACs with dissociation constants ranging from low millimolar to low nanomolar, thus making McpX the first observed bacterial MCP that mediates chemotaxis to QACs. Overall, we match medic derived AAs with McpU and QACs with McpX. These results can aid in optimizing chemotaxis to the host derived attractants in order to propagate the symbiosis more efficiently resulting in greater crop yields.

Chapter 2 characterizes the function of the S. meliloti Methyl accepting Chemotaxis Protein U (McpU) as receptor for the attractant, proline. A reduction in chemotaxis to proline is observed in an McpU deletion strain, but the defect is restored in an mcpU complemented strain. Single amino acid substitution mutant strains were created, each harboring a mutant mcpU gene. The behavioral experiments with the mutants display a reduction in chemotaxis to proline when aspartate 155 and aspartate 182 are changed to glutamates. The periplasmic region of wild type McpU was purified and demonstrated to directly bind proline with a dissociation constant (Kd) of 104 μM. The variant McpU proteins show a reduction in binding affinity confirming McpU as a direct proline sensor.

Chapter 3, describes the development of a high-throughput technique that is able to observe chemotaxis responses in ten separate chemotaxis chambers all at once. This procedure also allows for real time observations at intervals of two minutes for however long the experiment is scheduled. Using this new method it was found that McpU and the Internal Chemotaxis Protein A (IcpA) are the most involved with chemotaxis to seed exudates followed by McpV, W, X, and Y. The amounts of each proteinogenic amino acid (AA) in host and non-host seed exudates are quantified, which reveals that similar amounts are exuded from each species. It is shown that McpU is the most important receptor for chemotaxis toward synthetic mixtures that mimic the amounts seen in the exudates.

Chapter 4 further investigates the role of McpU in sensing amino acids using the high-throughput technique developed in Chapter 3. It is shown that McpU is important for chemotaxis to all individual proteinogenic amino acids except the acidic AA, aspartate. In vitro binding experiments confirm that McpU directly interacts with all AAs except the acidic AAs aspartate and glutamate. Binding parameters are determined for aspartate, glutamate, phenylalanine and proline.

In Chapter 5, five quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) are quantified from the host and non-host seed exudates, which reveals distinctive QAC profiles. S. meliloti is found to display strong chemotaxis to all QACs, which is further shown to be mediated mostly by McpX. McpX is then established as a direct binder to all QACs as well as proline, with dissociation constants ranging from nanomolar to millimolar.

These studies have increased our knowledge of how chemoreceptors sense attractants, and they have contributed to the bank of known attractant molecules for bacteria. Our new understandings of chemotaxis and how it relates to the Sinorhizobium-alfalfa model can allow for manipulations of the system to enhance chemotaxis to the host, thus propagating the symbiosis more efficiently, ultimately leading to greater crop yields.



alfalfa, chemotaxis, ligand, methyl accepting chemotaxis protein, symbiosis