Expression of RcrB confers resistance to hypochlorous acid in uropathogenic Escherichia coli

J Bacteriol. 2023 Oct 26;205(10):e0006423. doi: 10.1128/jb.00064-23. Epub 2023 Oct 4.


To eradicate bacterial pathogens, neutrophils are recruited to the sites of infection, where they engulf and kill microbes through the production of reactive oxygen and chlorine species (ROS/RCS). The most prominent RCS is the antimicrobial oxidant hypochlorous acid (HOCl), which rapidly reacts with various amino acid side chains, including those containing sulfur and primary/tertiary amines, causing significant macromolecular damage. Pathogens like uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC), the primary causative agent of urinary tract infections, have developed sophisticated defense systems to protect themselves from HOCl. We recently identified the RcrR regulon as a novel HOCl defense strategy in UPEC. Expression of the rcrARB operon is controlled by the HOCl-sensing transcriptional repressor RcrR, which is oxidatively inactivated by HOCl resulting in the expression of its target genes, including rcrB. The rcrB gene encodes a hypothetical membrane protein, deletion of which substantially increases UPEC's susceptibility to HOCl. However, the mechanism behind protection by RcrB is unclear. In this study, we investigated whether (i) its mode of action requires additional help, (ii) rcrARB expression is induced by physiologically relevant oxidants other than HOCl, and (iii) expression of this defense system is limited to specific media and/or cultivation conditions. We provide evidence that RcrB expression is sufficient to protect E. coli from HOCl. Furthermore, RcrB expression is induced by and protects from several RCS but not from ROS. RcrB plays a protective role for RCS-stressed planktonic cells under various growth and cultivation conditions but appears to be irrelevant for UPEC's biofilm formation. IMPORTANCE Bacterial infections pose an increasing threat to human health, exacerbating the demand for alternative treatments. Uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC), the most common etiological agent of urinary tract infections (UTIs), are confronted by neutrophilic attacks in the bladder, and must therefore be equipped with powerful defense systems to fend off the toxic effects of reactive chlorine species. How UPEC deal with the negative consequences of the oxidative burst in the neutrophil phagosome remains unclear. Our study sheds light on the requirements for the expression and protective effects of RcrB, which we recently identified as UPEC's most potent defense system toward hypochlorous acid (HOCl) stress and phagocytosis. Thus, this novel HOCl stress defense system could potentially serve as an attractive drug target to increase the body's own capacity to fight UTIs.

Keywords: bacterial defense systems; hypochlorous acid; oxidative stress; reactive chlorine species; transcriptional regulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Chlorine
  • Escherichia coli Infections* / microbiology
  • Escherichia coli Proteins* / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypochlorous Acid / pharmacology
  • Oxidants / pharmacology
  • Urinary Tract Infections* / microbiology
  • Uropathogenic Escherichia coli* / metabolism


  • Hypochlorous Acid
  • Chlorine
  • Oxidants
  • Escherichia coli Proteins