RNA antitoxin SprF1 binds ribosomes to attenuate translation and promote persister cell formation in Staphylococcus aureus

Nat Microbiol. 2021 Feb;6(2):209-220. doi: 10.1038/s41564-020-00819-2. Epub 2021 Jan 4.


Persister cells are a subpopulation of transiently antibiotic-tolerant bacteria associated with chronic infection and antibiotic treatment failure. Toxin-antitoxin systems have been linked to persister cell formation but the molecular mechanisms leading to bacterial persistence are mostly unknown. Here, we show that SprF1, a type I antitoxin, associates with translating ribosomes from the major human pathogen Staphylococcus aureus to reduce the pathogen's overall protein synthesis during growth. Under hyperosmotic stress, SprF1 levels increase due to enhanced stability, accumulate on polysomes and attenuate protein synthesis. Using an internal 6-nucleotide sequence on its 5'-end, SprF1 binds ribosomes and interferes with initiator transfer RNA binding, thus reducing translation initiation. An excess of messenger RNA displaces the ribosome-bound antitoxin, freeing the ribosomes for new translation cycles; however, this RNA antitoxin can also displace ribosome-bound mRNA. This translation attenuation mechanism, mediated by an RNA antitoxin, promotes antibiotic persister cell formation. The untranslated SprF1 is a dual-function RNA antitoxin that represses toxin expression by its 3'-end and fine-tunes overall bacterial translation via its 5'-end. These findings demonstrate a general function for a bacterial RNA antitoxin beyond protection from toxicity. They also highlight an RNA-guided molecular process that influences antibiotic persister cell formation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial
  • Polyribosomes / metabolism
  • Protein Biosynthesis*
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism*
  • Staphylococcus aureus / genetics
  • Staphylococcus aureus / metabolism*
  • Staphylococcus aureus / pathogenicity*
  • Toxin-Antitoxin Systems / physiology*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger