Slow growing stationary phase bacteria are often tolerant to multiple stressors and antimicrobials. Here, we show that the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus develops a non-specific tolerance towards oxidative stress during the stationary phase, which is mediated by the nucleotide second messenger (p)ppGpp. The (p)ppGpp0 mutant was highly susceptible to HOCl stress during the stationary phase. Transcriptome analysis of the (p)ppGpp0 mutant revealed an increased expression of the PerR, SigB, QsrR, CtsR and HrcA regulons during the stationary phase, indicating an oxidative stress response. The (p)ppGpp0 mutant showed a slight oxidative shift in the bacillithiol (BSH) redox potential (EBSH) and an impaired H2O2 detoxification due to higher endogenous ROS levels. The increased ROS levels in the (p)ppGpp0 mutant were shown to be caused by higher respiratory chain activity and elevated total and free iron levels. Consistent with these results, N-acetyl cysteine and the iron-chelator dipyridyl improved the growth and survival of the (p)ppGpp0 mutant under oxidative stress. Elevated free iron levels caused 8 to 31-fold increased transcription of Fe-storage proteins ferritin (ftnA) and miniferritin (dps) in the (p)ppGpp0 mutant, while Fur-regulated uptake systems for iron, heme or siderophores (efeOBU, isdABCDEFG, sirABC and sstADBCD) were repressed. Finally, the susceptibility of the (p)ppGpp0 mutant towards the bactericidal action of the antibiotics ciprofloxacin and tetracycline was abrogated with N-acetyl cysteine and dipyridyl. Taken together, (p)ppGpp confers tolerance to ROS and antibiotics by down-regulation of respiratory chain activity and free iron levels, lowering ROS formation to ensure redox homeostasis in S. aureus.
Keywords: (p)ppGpp; Antibiotics; HOCl; ROS; Staphylococcus aureus; Stringent response.
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