PrfA regulation offsets the cost of Listeria virulence outside the host.

Radhakrishnan B. Vasanthakrishnan, Aitor de las Heras, Mariela Scortti, Caroline Deshayes, Nick Colegrave, José A. Vázquez‐Boland*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Virulence traits are essential for pathogen fitness but whether they affect microbial performance in the environment, where they are not needed, remains experimentally unconfirmed. We investigated this question with the facultative pathogen Listeria monocytogenes and its PrfA virulence regulon. PrfA-regulated genes are activated intracellularly (PrfA "ON") but shut down outside the host (PrfA "OFF"). Using a mutant PrfA locked ON (PrfA*) and thus causing the PrfA regulon to be constitutively activated, we show that virulence gene expression significantly impairs the listerial growth rate (μ) and maximum growth (A) in rich medium. Deletion analysis of the PrfA regulon and expression of PrfA* in a mutant lacking all PrfA-regulated genes indicated that the growth reduction was specifically due to the unneeded virulence determinants and not to pleiotropic regulatory effects of PrfA ON. No PrfA*-associated fitness disadvantage was observed in infected eukaryotic cells, where PrfA-regulated virulence gene expression is critical for survival. Microcosm experiments demonstrated that the constitutively virulent state strongly impaired L. monocytogenes performance in soil, the natural habitat of these bacteria. Our findings provide empirical proof that virulence carries a significant cost to the pathogen. They also experimentally substantiate the assumed, though not proven, key role of virulence gene regulation systems in offsetting the cost of bacterial virulence outside the host.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4566-4579
JournalEnvironmental Microbiology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2015

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Cost of virulence
  • listeria
  • PrfA
  • virulence regulation


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