Although sulfite, a by-product of the degradation of many sulfur compounds, is highly reactive and can cause damage to DNA, proteins and lipids, comparatively little is known about the regulation of sulfite-oxidizing enzyme (SOEs) expression. Here we have investigated the regulation of SOE-encoding genes in two species of α-Proteobacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti and Starkeya novella, that degrade organo- and inorganic sulfur compounds, respectively, and contain unrelated types of SOEs that show different expression patterns. Our work revealed that in both cases, the molecular signal that triggers SOE gene expression is sulfite, and strong up-regulation depends on the presence of a sulfite-responsive, cognate Extracytoplasmic function (ECF) sigma factor, making sulfite oxidation a bacterial stress response. An additional RpoE1-like ECF sigma factor was also involved in the regulation, but was activated by different molecular signals, taurine (Sm) and tetrathionate (Sn), respectively, targeted different gene promoters, and also differed in the magnitude of the response generated. We therefore propose that RpoE1 is a secondary, species-specific regulator of SOE gene expression rather than a general, conserved regulatory circuit. Sulfite produced by major dissimilatory processes appeared to be the trigger for SOE gene expression in both species, as we were unable to find evidence for an increase of SOE activity in stationary growth phase. The basic regulation of bacterial sulfite oxidation by cognate ECF sigma factors is likely to be applicable to three groups of alpha and beta-Proteobacteria in which we identified similar SOE operon structures.
Keywords: extracytoplasmic function sigma factor; gene expression; gene regulation; microorganisms; sulfite oxidation.