Increases in the environmental osmolarity are key determinants for the growth of microorganisms. To ensure a physiologically acceptable level of cellular hydration and turgor at high osmolarity, many bacteria accumulate compatible solutes. Osmotically controlled uptake systems allow the scavenging of these compounds from scarce environmental sources as effective osmoprotectants. A number of these systems belong to the BCCT family (betaine-choline-carnitine-transporter), sodium- or proton-coupled transporters (e.g. BetP and BetT respectively) that are ubiquitous in microorganisms. The BCCT family also contains CaiT, an L-carnitine/γ-butyrobetaine antiporter that is not involved in osmotic stress responses. The glycine betaine transporter BetP from Corynebacterium glutamicum is a representative for osmoregulated symporters of the BCCT family and functions both as an osmosensor and osmoregulator. The crystal structure of BetP in an occluded conformation in complex with its substrate glycine betaine and two crystal structures of CaiT in an inward-facing open conformation in complex with L-carnitine and γ-butyrobetaine were reported recently. These structures and the wealth of biochemical data on the activity control of BetP in response to osmotic stress enable a correlation between the sensing of osmotic stress by a transporter protein with the ensuing regulation of transport activity. Molecular determinants governing the high-affinity binding of the compatible solutes by BetP and CaiT, the coupling in symporters and antiporters, and the osmoregulatory properties are discussed in detail for BetP and various BCCT carriers.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.