Elucidation of Key Interactions between VirF and the virB Promoter in Shigella flexneri Using E. coli MarA- and GadX-Based Homology Models and In Vitro Analysis of the DNA-Binding Domains of VirF and MarA

J Bacteriol. 2022 Sep 20;204(9):e0014322. doi: 10.1128/jb.00143-22. Epub 2022 Aug 30.


Infection with Shigella, the organism responsible for the diarrheal disease shigellosis, leads to approximately 200,000 deaths globally annually. Virulence of this pathogen is primarily controlled by the DNA-binding transcriptional activator VirF. This AraC family protein activates transcription of two major virulence genes, virB and icsA, which lead to the pathogen's ability to invade and spread within colonic epithelial cells. While several AraC proteins have been studied, few studies of VirF's binding to its DNA promoters have been reported, and VirF's three-dimensional structure remains unsolved. Here, we used structures of two E. coli VirF homologs, GadX and MarA-marRAB, to generate homology models of the VirF DNA-binding domain in free and DNA-bound conformations. We conducted alanine scanning mutagenesis on seven residues within MarA that make base-specific interactions with its promoter, marRAB, and the corresponding residues within VirF (identified by sequence and structural homologies). In vitro DNA-binding assays studying both wild-type and mutant MarA and VirF proteins identified residues important for binding to the marRAB and virB promoters, respectively. Comparison of the effects of these DNA-binding domain mutants validated our MarA-based homology model, allowing us to identify crucial interactions between VirF and the virB promoter. Proteins with mutations to helix 3 within both MarA(W42A, R46A) and MalE-VirF(R192A, K193A) exhibited significant reductions in DNA binding, while the effects of mutations in helix 6 varied. This suggests the shared importance of helix 3 in the binding to these promoters, while helix 6 is transcription factor specific. These results can inform further development of virulence-targeting inhibitors as an alternative to traditional antimicrobial drug design. IMPORTANCE Globally, infection with Shigella flexneri is a leading cause of bacterial dysentery, particularly affecting children under the age of 5 years. The virulence of this pathogen makes it highly infectious, allowing it to spread easily within areas lacking proper sanitation or access to clean drinking water. VirF is a DNA-binding transcription factor that activates S. flexneri virulence once the bacteria infect the human colon. Development of drugs that target VirF's DNA-binding activity can be an effective treatment to combat shigellosis as an alternative or addition to traditional antibiotics. Due to the lack of structural data, analysis of VirF's DNA-binding activity is critical to the development of potent VirF inhibitors.

Keywords: Shigella; virulence factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Alanine / genetics
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / metabolism
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • DNA / metabolism
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Drinking Water* / metabolism
  • Dysentery, Bacillary*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Humans
  • Interferon Regulatory Factors / genetics
  • Interferon Regulatory Factors / metabolism
  • Shigella flexneri / genetics
  • Shigella flexneri / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Viral Proteins
  • Virulence Factors / genetics
  • Virulence Factors / metabolism


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Drinking Water
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Interferon Regulatory Factors
  • MarA protein, E coli
  • Viral Proteins
  • Virulence Factors
  • viral interferon regulatory factors
  • DNA
  • Alanine