The Gram-negative curved bacillus Vibrio cholerae causes the severe diarrheal illness cholera. During host infection, a complex regulatory cascade results in production of ToxT, a DNA-binding protein that activates the transcription of major virulence genes that encode cholera toxin (CT) and toxin-coregulated pilus (TCP). Previous studies have shown that bile and its unsaturated fatty acid (UFA) components reduce virulence gene expression and therefore are likely important signals upon entering the host. However, the mechanism for the bile-mediated reduction of TCP and CT expression has not been clearly defined. There are two likely hypotheses to explain this reduction: (i) UFAs decrease DNA binding by ToxT, or (ii) UFAs decrease dimerization of ToxT. The work presented here elucidates that bile or UFAs directly affect DNA binding by ToxT. UFAs, specifically linoleic acid, can enter V. cholerae when added exogenously and are present in the cytoplasm, where they can then interact with ToxT. Electrophoretic mobility shift assays (EMSAs) with ToxT and various virulence promoters in the presence or absence of UFAs showed a direct reduction in ToxT binding to DNA, even in promoters with only one ToxT binding site. Virstatin, a synthetic ToxT inhibitor, was previously shown to reduce ToxT dimerization. Here we show that virstatin affects DNA binding only at ToxT promoters with two binding sites, unlike linoleic acid, which affects ToxT binding promoters having either one or two ToxT binding sites. This suggests a mechanism in which UFAs, unlike virstatin, do not affect dimerization but affect monomeric ToxT binding to DNA.
Importance: Vibrio cholerae must produce the major virulence factors cholera toxin (CT) and toxin-coregulated pilus (TCP) to cause cholera. CT and TCP production depends on ToxT, the major virulence transcription activator. ToxT activity is negatively regulated by unsaturated fatty acids (UFAs) present in the lumen of the upper small intestine. This study investigated the mechanism for inhibition of ToxT activity by UFAs and found that UFAs directly reduce specific ToxT binding to DNA at virulence promoters and subsequently reduce virulence gene expression. UFAs inhibit ToxT monomers from binding DNA. This differs from the inhibitory mechanism of a synthetic ToxT inhibitor, virstatin, which inhibits ToxT dimerization. Understanding the mechanisms for inhibition of virulence could lead to better cholera therapeutics.
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