Regulation of the Sae Two-Component System by Branched-Chain Fatty Acids in Staphylococcus aureus

mBio. 2022 Oct 26;13(5):e0147222. doi: 10.1128/mbio.01472-22. Epub 2022 Sep 22.


Staphylococcus aureus is a ubiquitous Gram-positive bacterium and an opportunistic human pathogen. S. aureus pathogenesis relies on a complex network of regulatory factors that adjust gene expression. Two important factors in this network are CodY, a repressor protein responsive to nutrient availability, and the SaeRS two-component system (TCS), which responds to neutrophil-produced factors. Our previous work revealed that CodY regulates the secretion of many toxins indirectly via Sae through an unknown mechanism. We report that disruption of codY results in increased levels of phosphorylated SaeR (SaeR~P) and that codY mutant cell membranes contain a higher percentage of branched-chain fatty acids (BCFAs) than do wild-type membranes, prompting us to hypothesize that changes to membrane composition modulate the activity of the SaeS sensor kinase. Disrupting the lpdA gene encoding dihydrolipoyl dehydrogenase, which is critical for BCFA synthesis, significantly reduced the abundance of SaeR, phosphorylated SaeR, and BCFAs in the membrane, resulting in reduced toxin production and attenuated virulence. Lower SaeR levels could be explained in part by reduced stability. Sae activity in the lpdA mutant could be complemented genetically and chemically with exogenous short- or full-length BCFAs. Intriguingly, lack of lpdA also alters the activity of other TCSs, suggesting a specific BCFA requirement managing the basal activity of multiple TCSs. These results reveal a novel method of posttranscriptional virulence regulation via BCFA synthesis, potentially linking CodY activity to multiple virulence regulators in S. aureus. IMPORTANCE Two-component systems (TCSs) are an essential way that bacteria sense and respond to their environment. These systems are usually composed of a membrane-bound histidine kinase that phosphorylates a cytoplasmic response regulator. Because most of the histidine kinases are embedded in the membrane, lipids can allosterically regulate the activity of these sensors. In this study, we reveal that branched-chain fatty acids (BCFAs) are required for the activation of multiple TCSs in Staphylococcus aureus. Using both genetic and biochemical data, we show that the activity of the virulence activator SaeS and the phosphorylation of its response regulator SaeR are reduced in a branched-chain keto-acid dehydrogenase complex mutant and that defects in BCFA synthesis have far-reaching consequences for exotoxin secretion and virulence. Finally, we show that mutation of the global nutritional regulator CodY alters BCFA content in the membrane, revealing a potential mechanism of posttranscriptional regulation of the Sae system by CodY.

Keywords: CodY; MRSA; SaeRS; Staphylococcus aureus; branched-chain fatty acids; fatty acids; membrane; membranes; two-component regulatory systems; virulence; virulence regulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Dihydrolipoamide Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Dihydrolipoamide Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Exotoxins / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Histidine / metabolism
  • Histidine Kinase / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Staphylococcal Infections* / microbiology
  • Staphylococcus aureus* / metabolism


  • Histidine Kinase
  • Dihydrolipoamide Dehydrogenase
  • Histidine
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Fatty Acids
  • Exotoxins