Agr-mediated dispersal of Staphylococcus aureus biofilms

PLoS Pathog. 2008 Apr 25;4(4):e1000052. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000052.


The agr quorum-sensing system of Staphylococcus aureus modulates the expression of virulence factors in response to autoinducing peptides (AIPs). Recent studies have suggested a role for the agr system in S. aureus biofilm development, as agr mutants exhibit a high propensity to form biofilms, and cells dispersing from a biofilm have been observed displaying an active agr system. Here, we report that repression of agr is necessary to form a biofilm and that reactivation of agr in established biofilms through AIP addition or glucose depletion triggers detachment. Inhibitory AIP molecules did not induce detachment and an agr mutant was non-responsive, indicating a dependence on a functional, active agr system for dispersal. Biofilm detachment occurred in multiple S. aureus strains possessing divergent agr systems, suggesting it is a general S. aureus phenomenon. Importantly, detachment also restored sensitivity of the dispersed cells to the antibiotic rifampicin. Proteinase K inhibited biofilm formation and dispersed established biofilms, suggesting agr-mediated detachment occurred in an ica-independent manner. Consistent with a protease-mediated mechanism, increased levels of serine proteases were detected in detaching biofilm effluents, and the serine protease inhibitor PMSF reduced the degree of agr-mediated detachment. Through genetic analysis, a double mutant in the agr-regulated Aur metalloprotease and the SplABCDEF serine proteases displayed minimal extracellular protease activity, improved biofilm formation, and a strongly attenuated detachment phenotype. These findings indicate that induction of the agr system in established S. aureus biofilms detaches cells and demonstrate that the dispersal mechanism requires extracellular protease activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Biofilms / drug effects
  • Biofilms / growth & development*
  • Endopeptidase K / metabolism
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Mutation
  • Peptides, Cyclic
  • Phenylmethylsulfonyl Fluoride
  • Serine Endopeptidases / metabolism
  • Staphylococcus aureus / drug effects
  • Staphylococcus aureus / physiology*
  • Trans-Activators / genetics
  • Trans-Activators / metabolism*
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Agr protein, Staphylococcus aureus
  • AgrD protein, Staphylococcus
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Peptides, Cyclic
  • Trans-Activators
  • Phenylmethylsulfonyl Fluoride
  • Serine Endopeptidases
  • Endopeptidase K