ComI inhibits transformation in Bacillus subtilis by selectively killing competent cells

J Bacteriol. 2024 Jun 14:e0041323. doi: 10.1128/jb.00413-23. Online ahead of print.


Many bacteria build elaborate molecular machines to import DNA via natural competence, yet this activity is often not identified until strains have been handled and domesticated in laboratory settings. For example, one of the best studied Gram-positive model organisms, Bacillus subtilis, has a poorly transformable ancestor. Transformation in the ancestral strain is inhibited by a transmembrane peptide, ComI, which is encoded on an extrachromosomal plasmid. Although ComI was shown to be necessary and sufficient to inhibit transformation when produced at high levels under an inducible promoter, the mechanism by which ComI inhibits transformation is unknown. Here, we examine the native regulation and mechanism of transformation inhibition by ComI. We find that under native regulation, ComI expression is restricted in the absence of the plasmid. In the presence of the plasmid, we find that ComI is expressed at higher levels in cells that are differentiating into a competent state. The subcellular localization of ComI, however, does not depend on any other competence proteins, and permeabilization activity is concentration-dependent. Time-lapse microscopy reveals that competent cells producing ComI are first permeabilized and then die. Based on these observations, we propose a new model for the mechanism of ComI in which response to competence activation leads to selective elimination of the competent subpopulation.

Importance: Natural transformation mechanisms have been studied across several bacterial systems, but few examples of inhibition exist. This work investigates the mechanism of action of a plasmid-encoded transmembrane inhibitor of natural transformation. The data reveal that the peptide can cause cell permeabilization. Permeabilization is synergistic with entry of Bacillus subtilis into the "competent" state, such that cells with the ability to be transformed are preferentially killed. These findings reveal a self-preservation mechanism coupled to the physiological state of the cells that ensures that the population can maintain an unaltered plasmid and its predicted prophage.

Keywords: B. subtilis; competence; natural transformation.