Phage infection and sub-lethal antibiotic exposure mediate Enterococcus faecalis type VII secretion system dependent inhibition of bystander bacteria

PLoS Genet. 2021 Jan 7;17(1):e1009204. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009204. eCollection 2021 Jan.


Bacteriophages (phages) are being considered as alternative therapeutics for the treatment of multidrug resistant bacterial infections. Considering phages have narrow host-ranges, it is generally accepted that therapeutic phages will have a marginal impact on non-target bacteria. We have discovered that lytic phage infection induces transcription of type VIIb secretion system (T7SS) genes in the pathobiont Enterococcus faecalis. Membrane damage during phage infection induces T7SS gene expression resulting in cell contact dependent antagonism of different Gram positive bystander bacteria. Deletion of essB, a T7SS structural component, abrogates phage-mediated killing of bystanders. A predicted immunity gene confers protection against T7SS mediated inhibition, and disruption of its upstream LXG toxin gene rescues growth of E. faecalis and Staphylococcus aureus bystanders. Phage induction of T7SS gene expression and bystander inhibition requires IreK, a serine/threonine kinase, and OG1RF_11099, a predicted GntR-family transcription factor. Additionally, sub-lethal doses of membrane targeting and DNA damaging antibiotics activated T7SS expression independent of phage infection, triggering T7SS antibacterial activity against bystander bacteria. Our findings highlight how phage infection and antibiotic exposure of a target bacterium can affect non-target bystander bacteria and implies that therapies beyond antibiotics, such as phage therapy, could impose collateral damage to polymicrobial communities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects
  • Bacteriophages / genetics*
  • Bystander Effect
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Enterococcus faecalis / genetics*
  • Enterococcus faecalis / pathogenicity
  • Enterococcus faecalis / virology
  • Gram-Positive Bacterial Infections / genetics*
  • Gram-Positive Bacterial Infections / microbiology
  • Gram-Positive Bacterial Infections / therapy
  • Gram-Positive Bacterial Infections / virology
  • Host Specificity / genetics
  • Humans
  • Type VII Secretion Systems / genetics


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Type VII Secretion Systems