Adaptation of Bacillus subtilis to Life at Extreme Potassium Limitation

mBio. 2017 Jul 5;8(4):e00861-17. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00861-17.


Potassium is the most abundant metal ion in every living cell. This ion is essential due to its requirement for the activity of the ribosome and many enzymes but also because of its role in buffering the negative charge of nucleic acids. As the external concentrations of potassium are usually low, efficient uptake and intracellular enrichment of the ion is necessary. The Gram-positive bacterium Bacillus subtilis possesses three transporters for potassium, KtrAB, KtrCD, and the recently discovered KimA. In the absence of the high-affinity transporters KtrAB and KimA, the bacteria were unable to grow at low potassium concentrations. However, we observed the appearance of suppressor mutants that were able to overcome the potassium limitation. All these suppressor mutations affected amino acid metabolism, particularly arginine biosynthesis. In the mutants, the intracellular levels of ornithine, citrulline, and arginine were strongly increased, suggesting that these amino acids can partially substitute for potassium. This was confirmed by the observation that the supplementation with positively charged amino acids allows growth of B. subtilis even at the extreme potassium limitation that the bacteria experience if no potassium is added to the medium. In addition, a second class of suppressor mutations allowed growth at extreme potassium limitation. These mutations result in increased expression of KtrAB, the potassium transporter with the highest affinity and therefore allow the acquisition and accumulation of the smallest amounts of potassium ions from the environment.IMPORTANCE Potassium is essential for every living cell as it is required for the activity for many enzymes and for maintaining the intracellular pH by buffering the negative charge of the nucleic acids. We have studied the adaptation of the soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to life at low potassium concentrations. If the major high-affinity transporters are missing, the bacteria are unable to grow unless they acquire mutations that result in the accumulation of positively charged amino acids such as ornithine, citrulline, and arginine. Supplementation of the medium with these amino acids rescued growth even in the absence of externally added potassium. Moreover, these growth conditions, which the bacteria experience as an extreme potassium limitation, can be overcome by the acquisition of mutations that result in increased expression of the high-affinity potassium transporter KtrAB. Our results indicate that positively charged amino acids can partially take over the function of potassium.

Keywords: Bacillus subtilis; arginine biosynthesis; c-di-AMP; ion homeostasis; potassium transport.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Amino Acids / metabolism
  • Arginine / biosynthesis
  • Bacillus subtilis / genetics
  • Bacillus subtilis / growth & development
  • Bacillus subtilis / physiology*
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Dinucleoside Phosphates / metabolism
  • Ion Transport
  • Mutation
  • Potassium / analysis*
  • Potassium / pharmacology*


  • Amino Acids
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Dinucleoside Phosphates
  • cyclic diadenosine phosphate
  • Arginine
  • Potassium