Understanding the role of virulence regulators in niche adaptability using the Listeria PrfA “saprotroph to parasite” switch
Radhakrishnan Balasubramaniam, Vasanthakrishnan
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Listeria monocytogenes the causative agent of foodborne listeriosis is a facultative pathogen that lives as a saprophyte in soil and as an intracellular parasite in host tissues. A regulatory protein, the transcriptional activator PrfA, plays a key role in the “saprotroph to parasite” conversion of L. monocytogenes by selectively activating key virulence genes essential for infection when the bacteria enter host cells. Central to this conversion is the plastic ability of PrfA allosterically shift between two states, weakly active (“ON-OFF”, outside in the environment) and strongly active (“ON”, intracellular compartment). In this thesis, I have used the PrfA “ON-OFF” virulence switch to understand the role of virulence regulators in the adaptability of facultative parasites to a wide range of niches. Using the PrfA model, I have also examined the trade-offs between the saprotroph and virulent states of facultative pathogens and the role of plasticity in maintaining adaptation to multiple environments. Using soil as a natural environment model, I have shown that overexpression of the PrfA-dependent virulence regulon has a negative impact on environmental survival of L. monocytogenes. Then I investigated the fitness consequences of losing PrfA switchability in non-host environments. The results in in-vitro growth conditions with isogenic strains with PrfA locked in the “ON” state and in which all the genes of the virulence regulon were deleted, showed that PrfA-dependent gene overexpression causes a reduction in fitness. Our data indicate this was directly attributable to the costs associated with the overproduction of an array of unneeded proteins and not to indirect effects of hyperactive PrfA in Listeria metabolism. Finally, I used experimental evolution studies in in-vitro only conditions and in alternate in-vitro and intracellular conditions with bacteria with wild-type or “ON-locked” PrfA alleles to visualize the selective pressures acting on the PrfA switch. The results of the selection experiments showed that adaptation to the different conditions involves a rapid evolution of PrfA with mutations changing its activity according to the specific environment in which selection occurred. The findings from this thesis highlight the importance of plastic ability, evolution of properly regulated genetic systems and the role of these genetic systems in enabling organisms to maximise their fitness during the adaptation process to a specific niche.