Functional determinants of a small protein controlling a broadly conserved bacterial sensor kinase

J Bacteriol. 2020 Jun 1;202(16):e00305-20. doi: 10.1128/JB.00305-20. Online ahead of print.


The PhoQ/PhoP two-component system plays a vital role in the regulation of Mg2+ homeostasis, resistance to acid and hyperosmotic stress, cationic antimicrobial peptides, and virulence in Escherichia coli, Salmonella and related bacteria. Previous studies have shown that MgrB, a 47 amino acid membrane protein that is part of the PhoQ/PhoP regulon, inhibits the histidine kinase PhoQ. MgrB is part of a negative feedback loop modulating this two-component system that prevents hyperactivation of PhoQ and may also provide an entry point for additional input signals for the PhoQ/PhoP pathway. To explore the mechanism of action of MgrB, we have analyzed the effects of point mutations, C-terminal truncations and transmembrane region swaps on MgrB activity. In contrast with two other known membrane protein regulators of histidine kinases in E. coli, we find that the MgrB TM region is necessary for PhoQ inhibition. Our results indicate that the TM region mediates interactions with PhoQ and that W20 is a key residue for PhoQ/MgrB complex formation. Additionally, mutations of the MgrB cytosolic region suggest that the two N-terminal lysines play an important role in regulating PhoQ activity. Alanine scanning mutagenesis of the periplasmic region of MgrB further indicates that, with the exception of a few highly conserved residues, most residues are not essential for MgrB's function as a PhoQ inhibitor. Our results indicate that the regulatory function of the small protein MgrB depends on distinct contributions from multiple residues spread across the protein. Interestingly, the TM region also appears to interact with other non-cognate histidine kinases in a bacterial two-hybrid assay, suggesting a potential route for evolving new small protein modulators of histidine kinases.