Bacillus subtilis flagella are not only required for locomotion but also act as sensors that monitor environmental changes. Although how the signal transmission takes place is poorly understood, it has been shown that flagella play an important role in surface sensing by transmitting a mechanical signal to control the DegS-DegU two-component system. Here we report a role for flagella in the regulation of the K-state, which enables transformability and antibiotic tolerance (persistence). Mutations impairing flagellar synthesis are inferred to increase DegU-P, which inhibits the expression of ComK, the master regulator for the K-state, and reduces transformability. Tellingly, both deletion of the flagellin gene and straight filament (hagA233V ) mutations increased DegU phosphorylation despite the fact that both mutants had wild type numbers of basal bodies and the flagellar motors were functional. We propose that higher viscous loads on flagellar motors result in lower DegU-P levels through an unknown signaling mechanism. This flagellar-load based mechanism ensures that cells in the motile subpopulation have a tenfold enhanced likelihood of entering the K-state and taking up DNA from the environment. Further, our results suggest that the developmental states of motility and competence are related and most commonly occur in the same epigenetic cell type.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.