Pseudomonas aeruginosa overrides the virulence inducing effect of opioids when it senses an abundance of phosphate

PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e34883. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034883. Epub 2012 Apr 13.


The gut during critical illness represents a complex ecology dominated by the presence of healthcare associated pathogens, nutrient scarce conditions, and compensatory host stress signals. We have previously identified key environmental cues, opioids and phosphate depletion that independently activate the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Opioids induce quinolone signal production (PQS), whereas phosphate depletion leads to a triangulated response between MvfR-PQS, pyoverdin, and phosphosensory/phosphoregulatory systems (PstS-PhoB). Yet how P. aeruginosa manages its response to opioids during nutrient scarce conditions when growth is limited and a quorum is unlikely to be achieved is important in the context of pathogenesis in gut during stress. To mimic this environment, we created nutrient poor conditions and exposed P. aeruginosa PAO1 to the specific k-opioid receptor agonist U-50,488. Bacterial cells exposed to the k-opioid expressed a striking increase in virulence- and multi-drug resistance-related genes that correlated to a lethal phenotype in C. elegans killing assays. Under these conditions, HHQ, a precursor of PQS, rather than PQS itself, became the main inducer for pqsABCDE operon expression. P. aeruginosa virulence expression in response to k-opioids required PqsE since ΔPqsE was attenuated in its ability to activate virulence- and efflux pumps-related genes. Extracellular inorganic phosphate completely changed the transcriptional response of PAO1 to the k- opioid preventing pqsABCDE expression, the activation of multiple virulence- and efflux pumps-related genes, and the ability of P. aeruginosa to kill C. elegans. These results indicate that when P. aeruginosa senses resource abundance in the form of phosphate, it overrides its response to compensatory host signals such as opioids to express a virulent and lethal phenotype. These studies confirm a central role for phosphate in P. aeruginosa virulence that might be exploited to design novel anti- virulence strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / microbiology
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Oligopeptides / metabolism
  • Phosphates / metabolism
  • Phosphates / pharmacology*
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / drug effects
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / metabolism
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / pathogenicity*
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / ultrastructure
  • Quinolones / metabolism
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Virulence / drug effects
  • Virulence / genetics


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Oligopeptides
  • Phosphates
  • Quinolones
  • pyoverdin