Journal of bacteriology

The Global Transcription Factor Lrp Controls Virulence Modulation in Xenorhabdus nematophila.

PMID 26170407


The bacterium Xenorhabdus nematophila engages in phenotypic variation with respect to pathogenicity against insect larvae, yielding both virulent and attenuated subpopulations of cells from an isogenic culture. The global regulatory protein Lrp is necessary for X. nematophila virulence and immunosuppression in insects, as well as colonization of the mutualistic host nematode Steinernema carpocapsae, and mediates expression of numerous genes implicated in each of these phenotypes. Given the central role of Lrp in X. nematophila host associations, as well as its involvement in regulating phenotypic variation pathways in other bacteria, we assessed its function in virulence modulation. We discovered that expression of lrp varies within an isogenic population, in a manner that correlates with modulation of virulence. Unexpectedly, although Lrp is necessary for optimal virulence and immunosuppression, cells expressing high levels of lrp were attenuated in these processes relative to those with low to intermediate lrp expression. Furthermore, fixed expression of lrp at high and low levels resulted in attenuated and normal virulence and immunosuppression, respectively, and eliminated population variability of these phenotypes. These data suggest that fluctuating lrp expression levels are sufficient to drive phenotypic variation in X. nematophila. Many bacteria use cell-to-cell phenotypic variation, characterized by distinct phenotypic subpopulations within an isogenic population, to cope with environmental change. Pathogenic bacteria utilize this strategy to vary antigen or virulence factor expression. Our work establishes that the global transcription factor Lrp regulates phenotypic variation in the insect pathogen Xenorhabdus nematophila, leading to attenuation of virulence and immunosuppression in insect hosts. Unexpectedly, we found an inverse correlation between Lrp expression levels and virulence: high levels of expression of Lrp-dependent putative virulence genes are detrimental for virulence but may have an adaptive advantage in other aspects of the life cycle. Investigation of X. nematophila phenotypic variation facilitates dissection of this phenomenon in the context of a naturally occurring symbiosis.