In the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, many virulence traits are finely regulated by quorum sensing (QS), an intercellular communication system that allows the cells of a population to coordinate gene expression in response to cell density. The key aspects underlying the functionality of the complex regulatory network governing QS in P. aeruginosa are still poorly understood, including the interplay between the effector protein PqsE and the transcriptional regulator RhlR in controlling the QS regulon. Different studies have focused on the characterization of PqsE- and RhlR-controlled genes in genetic backgrounds in which RhlR activity can be modulated by PqsE and pqsE expression is controlled by RhlR, thus hampering identification of the distinct regulons controlled by PqsE and RhlR. In this study, a P. aeruginosa PAO1 mutant strain with deletion of multiple QS elements and inducible expression of pqsE and/or rhlR was generated and validated. Transcriptomic analyses performed on this genetic background allowed us to unambiguously define the regulons controlled by PqsE and RhlR when produced alone or in combination. Transcriptomic data were validated via reverse transcription-quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) and transcriptional fusions. Overall, our results showed that PqsE has a negligible effect on the P. aeruginosa transcriptome in the absence of RhlR, and that multiple RhlR subregulons exist with distinct dependency on PqsE. Overall, this study contributes to untangling the regulatory link between the pqs and rhl QS systems mediated by PqsE and RhlR and clarifying the impact of these QS elements on the P. aeruginosa transcriptome. IMPORTANCE The ability of Pseudomonas aeruginosa to cause difficult-to-treat infections relies on its capacity to fine-tune the expression of multiple virulence traits via the las, rhl, and pqs QS systems. Both the pqs effector protein PqsE and the rhl transcriptional regulator RhlR are required for full production of key virulence factors in vitro and pathogenicity in vivo. While it is known that PqsE can stimulate the ability of RhlR to control some virulence factors, no data are available to allow clear discrimination of the PqsE and RhlR regulons. The data produced in this study demonstrate that PqsE mainly impacts the P. aeruginosa transcriptome via an RhlR-dependent pathway and splits the RhlR regulon into PqsE-dependent and PqsE-independent subregulons. Besides contributing to untangling of the complex QS network of P. aeruginosa, our data confirm that both PqsE and RhlR are suitable targets for the development of antivirulence drugs.
Keywords: PqsE; Pseudomonas aeruginosa; RNA-seq; RhlR; gene regulation; pyocyanin; quorum sensing; virulence.