The accessory gene regulatory (agr) operon of the opportunistic human pathogen Staphylococcus aureus is a prime pathogenesis factor in this bacterium. The agr operon consists of two transcription units, RNAII and RNAIII, which are transcribed from divergent promoters, P2 and P3, respectively. RNAII encodes a quorum-sensing system, including AgrA, the master transcription activator of the agr operon. RNAIII is the effector RNA molecule that regulates the expression of many virulence genes. Owing to the atypical spacer lengths of P2 and P3, it is widely considered that transcription from P2 and P3 only occurs in a strictly AgrA-dependent manner. Here, using a fully native S. aureus in vitro transcription system, we provide the first molecular and mechanistic characterisation of the regulation of transcription initiation at the agr operon. Surprisingly, the results demonstrate that RNA polymerase (RNAp) can interact with P2 and P3 equally well in the absence of AgrA. However, formation of a transcription-competent open promoter complex (RPo) occurs more readily at P2 than at P3 when AgrA is absent. Reducing the atypical P3 spacer region length to the optimal length of 17 nucleotides significantly improves promoter activity by facilitating the isomerisation of the initial RNAp-P3 complexes to RPo, and the extended -10-like element of P3 is required for optimal promoter activity. AgrA increases the occupancy of both promoters by RNAp and thereby increases the amount of transcription initiated at P2 and P3. However, the AgrA-mediated effect on transcription initiation is more prominent at P3 that at P2. The effect of AgrA at P2 and P3 appears to be restricted to events leading to the formation of RPo. The relevance of AgrA-independent and AgrA-dependent transcription initiation at P2 and P3 is presented in the context of our current understanding of the role of the agr operon in the pathobiology of S. aureus.
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