The 5.5 protein (T7p32) of coliphage T7 (5.5(T7)) was shown to bind and inhibit gene silencing by the nucleoid-associated protein H-NS, but the mechanism by which it acts was not understood. The 5.5(T7) protein is insoluble when expressed in Escherichia coli, but we find that 5.5(T7) can be isolated in a soluble form when coexpressed with a truncated version of H-NS followed by subsequent disruption of the complex during anion-exchange chromatography. Association studies reveal that 5.5(T7) binds a region of H-NS (residues 60 to 80) recently found to contain a distinct domain necessary for higher-order H-NS oligomerization. Accordingly, we find that purified 5.5(T7) can disrupt higher-order H-NS-DNA complexes in vitro but does not abolish DNA binding by H-NS per se. Homologues of the 5.5(T7) protein are found exclusively among members of the Autographivirinae that infect enteric bacteria, and despite fairly low sequence conservation, the H-NS binding properties of these proteins are largely conserved. Unexpectedly, we find that the 5.5(T7) protein copurifies with heterogeneous low-molecular-weight RNA, likely tRNA, through several chromatography steps and that this interaction does not require the DNA binding domain of H-NS. The 5.5 proteins utilize a previously undescribed mechanism of H-NS antagonism that further highlights the critical importance that higher-order oligomerization plays in H-NS-mediated gene repression.
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