Retrons are prokaryotic genetic retroelements encoding a reverse transcriptase that produces multi-copy single-stranded DNA1 (msDNA). Despite decades of research on the biosynthesis of msDNA2, the function and physiological roles of retrons have remained unknown. Here we show that Retron-Sen2 of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium encodes an accessory toxin protein, STM14_4640, which we renamed as RcaT. RcaT is neutralized by the reverse transcriptase-msDNA antitoxin complex, and becomes active upon perturbation of msDNA biosynthesis. The reverse transcriptase is required for binding to RcaT, and the msDNA is required for the antitoxin activity. The highly prevalent RcaT-containing retron family constitutes a new type of tripartite DNA-containing toxin-antitoxin system. To understand the physiological roles of such toxin-antitoxin systems, we developed toxin activation-inhibition conjugation (TAC-TIC), a high-throughput reverse genetics approach that identifies the molecular triggers and blockers of toxin-antitoxin systems. By applying TAC-TIC to Retron-Sen2, we identified multiple trigger and blocker proteins of phage origin. We demonstrate that phage-related triggers directly modify the msDNA, thereby activating RcaT and inhibiting bacterial growth. By contrast, prophage proteins circumvent retrons by directly blocking RcaT. Consistently, retron toxin-antitoxin systems act as abortive infection anti-phage defence systems, in line with recent reports3,4. Thus, RcaT retrons are tripartite DNA-regulated toxin-antitoxin systems, which use the reverse transcriptase-msDNA complex both as an antitoxin and as a sensor of phage protein activities.
© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.