Bacterial populations can survive exposure to antibiotics through transient phenotypic and gene expression changes. These changes can be attributed to a small subpopulation of bacteria, giving rise to antibiotic persistence. Although this phenomenon has been known for decades, much remains to be learned about the mechanisms that drive persister formation. The RNA-binding protein ProQ has recently emerged as a global regulator of gene expression. Here, we show that ProQ impacts persister formation in Salmonella. In vitro, ProQ contributes to growth arrest in a subset of cells that are able to survive treatment at high concentrations of different antibiotics. The underlying mechanism for ProQ-dependent persister formation involves the activation of metabolically costly processes, including the flagellar pathway and the type III protein secretion system encoded on Salmonella pathogenicity island 2. Importantly, we show that the ProQ-dependent phenotype is relevant during macrophage infection and allows Salmonella to survive the combined action of host immune defenses and antibiotics. Together, our data highlight the importance of ProQ in Salmonella persistence and pathogenesis. IMPORTANCE Bacteria can avoid eradication by antibiotics through a phenomenon known as persistence. Persister cells arise through phenotypic heterogeneity and constitute a small fraction of dormant cells within a population of actively growing bacteria, which is susceptible to antibiotic killing. In this study, we show that ProQ, an RNA-binding protein and global regulator of gene expression, promotes persisters in the human pathogen Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium. Bacteria lacking the proQ gene outcompete wild-type bacteria under laboratory conditions, are less prone to enter growth dormancy, and form fewer persister cells. The basis for these phenotypes lies in ProQ's ability to activate energy-consuming cellular processes, including flagellar motility and protein secretion. Importantly, we show that ProQ contributes to the persister phenotype during Salmonella infection of macrophages, indicating an important role of this global regulator in Salmonella pathogenesis.
Keywords: ProQ; RNA-binding protein; Salmonella; antibiotic persistence; antibiotic persisters; flagella; flagellar gene regulation; persister formation.