Sensing and Signal Transduction

Chemotaxis

Chemotaxis is the phenomenon whereby bacterial cells direct their movements according to certain chemicals in their environment.

Learning Objectives

Explain how chemotaxis works in bacteria that have flagella

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Chemoattractants and chemorepellents are inorganic or organic substances possessing chemotaxis -inducer effect in motile cells.
  • Some bacteria, such as E. coli, have several flagella that can rotate to facilitate chemotaxis.
  • The overall movement of a bacterium is the result of alternating tumble and swim phases.

Key Terms

  • chemotaxis: Chemotaxis is the phenomenon whereby somatic cells, bacteria, and other single-cell or multicellular organisms direct their movements in response to certain chemicals in their environment.
  • flagella: A flagellum is a lash-like appendage that protrudes from the cell body of certain prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.
  • movement: Physical motion between points in space.

Chemotaxis is the phenomenon whereby somatic cells, bacteria, and other single-cell or multicellular organisms direct their movements according to certain chemicals in their environment. This is important for bacteria to find food (for example, glucose) by swimming towards the highest concentration of food molecules, or to flee from poisons (for example, phenol).

Positive chemotaxis occurs if the movement is toward a higher concentration of the chemical in question. Conversely, negative chemotaxis occurs if the movement is in the opposite direction.

Chemoattractants and chemorepellents are inorganic or organic substances possessing chemotaxis-inducer effect in motile cells. Effects of chemoattractants are elicited via described or hypothetic chemotaxis receptors; the chemoattractant moiety of a ligand is target cell specific and concentration dependent. Most frequently investigated chemoattractants are formyl peptides and chemokines. Responses to chemorepellents result in axial swimming and they are considered a basic motile phenomena in bacteria. The most frequently investigated chemorepellents are inorganic salts, amino acids and some chemokines.

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Chemoattractants and chemorepellents: In response to chemoattractants, cells move toward the stimulant. In response to chemorepellents, cells move away from them.

Some bacteria, such as E. coli, have several flagella per cell (4–10 typically). These can rotate in two ways:

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Bacterial chemotaxis: Correlation of swimming behavior and flagellar rotation in E. coli.

1. Counter-clockwise rotation – aligns the flagella into a single rotating bundle, causing the bacterium to swim in a straight line.

2. Clockwise rotation – breaks the flagella bundle apart such that each flagellum points in a different direction, causing the bacterium to tumble in place.

The directions of rotation are given for an observer outside the cell looking down the flagella toward the cell.

Overall movements in bacterium

This is the result of alternating tumble and swim phases. If one watches a bacterium swimming in a uniform environment, its movement will look like a random walk with relatively straight swims interrupted by random tumbles that reorient it. Bacteria such as E. coli are unable to choose the direction in which they swim, and are unable to swim in a straight line for more than a few seconds due to rotational diffusion: they “forget” the direction in which they are going. By repeatedly evaluating their course, and adjusting if they are moving in the wrong direction, bacteria can direct their motion to find favorable locations with high concentrations of attractants (usually food) and avoid repellents (usually poisons).

In the presence of a chemical gradient bacteria will chemotax, or direct their overall motion based on the gradient. If the bacterium senses that it is moving in the correct direction (toward attractant/away from repellent), it will keep swimming in a straight line for a longer time before tumbling. If it is moving in the wrong direction, it will tumble sooner and try a new direction at random. In other words, bacteria like E. coli use temporal sensing to decide whether their situation is improving or not. In this way, it finds the location with the highest concentration of attractant (usually the source) quite well. Even under very high concentrations, it can still distinguish very small differences in concentration. Fleeing from a repellent works with the same efficiency.

Purposeful random walk

This is a result of simply choosing between two methods of random movement; namely tumbling and straight swimming. In fact, chemotactic responses such as forgetting direction and choosing movements resemble the decision-making abilities of higher life-forms with brains that process sensory data.

The helical nature of the individual flagellar filament is critical for this movement to occur. As such, the protein that makes up the flagellar filament, flagellin, is quite similar among all flagellated bacteria. Vertebrates seem to have taken advantage of this fact by possessing an immune receptor (TLR5) designed to recognize this conserved protein.

As in many instances in biology, there are bacteria that do not follow this rule. Many bacteria, such as Vibrio, are monoflagellated and have a single flagellum at one pole of the cell. Their method of chemotaxis is different. Others possess a single flagellum that is kept inside the cell wall. These bacteria move by spinning the whole cell, which is shaped like a corkscrew.

Signal transduction in bacteria

The proteins CheW and CheA bind to the receptor. The activation of the receptor by an external stimulus causes autophosphorylation in the histidine kinase, CheA, at a single highly-conserved histidine residue. CheA in turn transfers phosphoryl groups to conserved aspartate residues in the response regulators CheB and CheY [note: CheA is a histidine kinase and it does not actively transfer the phosphoryl group. The response regulator CheB takes the phosphoryl group from CheA]. This mechanism of signal transduction is called a two-component system and is a common form of signal transduction in bacteria.

CheY induces tumbling by interacting with the flagellar switch protein FliM, inducing a change from counter-clockwise to clockwise rotation of the flagellum. Change in the rotation state of a single flagellum can disrupt the entire flagella bundle and cause a tumble.

Two-Component Regulatory Systems

Two-component systems couple mechanism to allow organisms to sense and respond to changes in many different environmental conditions.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure and function of a bacterial two-component regulatory system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Two-component signal transduction systems enable bacteria to sense, respond, and adapt to a wide range of environments, stressors, and growth conditions.
  • Signal transduction can occur through the transfer of phosphoryl groups from adenosine triphosphate ( ATP ) to a specific histidine residue in the histidine kinases (HK).
  • A variant of the two-component system is the phospho-relay system.

Key Terms

  • Two-component systems: Two-component systems serve as a basic stimulus-response coupling mechanism to allow organisms to sense and respond to changes in many different environmental conditions. They typically consist of a membrane-bound histidine kinase that senses a specific environmental stimulus and a corresponding response regulator that mediates the cellular response, mostly through differential expression of target genes.
  • Signal transduction: Signal transduction occurs when an extracellular signaling molecule activates a cell surface receptor. In turn, this receptor alters intracellular molecules creating a response.
  • histidine kinase: Histidine Kinases (HK) are multifunctional, typically transmembrane, proteins of the transferase class that play a role in signal transduction across the cellular membrane.

Two-Component Systems

In molecular biology, two-component systems serve as a basic stimulus-response coupling mechanism allowing organisms to sense and respond to changes in many different environmental conditions. They typically consist of a membrane -bound histidine kinase that senses a specific environmental stimulus and a corresponding response regulator that mediates the cellular response. Two component signaling systems are widely occurring in prokaryotes whereas only a few two-component systems have been identified in eukaryotic organisms.

Signal transduction occurs through the transfer of phosphoryl groups from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to a specific histidine residue in the histidine kinases (HK). This is an autophosphorylation reaction. Subsequently the histidine kinase catalyzes the transfer of the phosphate group on the phosphorylated histidine residues to an aspartic acid residue on the response regulator (RR). Phosphorylation causes the response regulator’s conformation to change, usually activating an attached output domain, which then leads to the stimulation (or repression) of expression of target genes. The level of phosphorylation of the response regulator controls its activity. Some HK are bifunctional, catalysing both the phosphorylation and dephosphorylation of their cognate RR. The input stimuli can regulate either the kinase or phosphatase activity of the bifunctional HK.

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Signal transduction: An overview of major signal transduction pathways.

Two-component signal transduction systems enable bacteria to sense, respond and adapt to a wide range of environments, stressors and growth conditions. Some bacteria can contain as many as 200 two-component systems that need tight regulation to prevent unwanted cross-talk. These pathways have been adapted to respond to a wide variety of stimuli, including nutrients, cellular redox state, changes in osmolarity, quorum signals, antibiotics, temperature, chemoattractants, pH and more. In E. coli the EnvZ/OmpR osmoregulation system controls the differential expression of the outer membrane porin proteins OmpF and OmpC. The KdpD sensor kinase proteins regulate the kdpFABC operon responsible for potassium transport in bacteria including E. coli and Clostridium acetobutylicum. The N-terminal domain of this protein forms part of the cytoplasmic region of the protein, which may be the sensor domain responsible for sensing turgor pressure.

System Variants

A variant of the two-component system is the phospho-relay system. Here a hybrid HK autophosphorylates and then transfers the phosphoryl group to an internal receiver domain, rather than to a separate RR protein. The phosphoryl group is then shuttled to histidine phosphotransferase (HPT) and subsequently to a terminal RR, which can evoke the desired response.

Signal transducing histidine kinases are the key elements in two-component signal transduction systems. Examples of histidine kinases are EnvZ, which plays a central role in osmoregulation, and CheA, which plays a central role in the chemotaxis system. Histidine kinases usually have an N-terminal ligand-binding domain and a C-terminal kinase domain, but other domains may also be present. The kinase domain is responsible for the autophosphorylation of the histidine with ATP, the phosphotransfer from the kinase to an aspartate of the response regulator, and (with bifunctional enzymes ) the phosphotransfer from aspartyl phosphate back to ADP or to water. The kinase core has a unique fold, distinct from that of the Ser/Thr/Tyr kinase superfamily.

HKs can be roughly divided into two classes: orthodox and hybrid kinases. Most orthodox HKs, typified by the Escherichia coli EnvZ protein, function as periplasmic membrane receptors and have a signal peptide and transmembrane segment(s) that separate the protein into a periplasmic N-terminal sensing domain and a highly conserved cytoplasmic C-terminal kinase core. Members of this family, however, have an integral membrane sensor domain. Not all orthodox kinases are membrane bound, e.g., the nitrogen regulatory kinase NtrB (GlnL) is a soluble cytoplasmic HK. Hybrid kinases contain multiple phosphodonor and phosphoacceptor sites and use multi-step phospho-relay schemes instead of promoting a single phosphoryl transfer. In addition to the sensor domain and kinase core, they contain a CheY-like receiver domain and a His-containing phosphotransfer (HPt) domain.

The Hpr Serine/threonine kinase PtsK is the sensor in a multicomponent phosphorelay system in control of carbon catabolic repression in bacteria. This kinase is unusual in that it recognizes the tertiary structure of its target and is a member of a novel family unrelated to any previously described protein phosphorylating enzymes. X-ray analysis of the full-length crystalline enzyme from Staphylococcus xylosus at a resolution of 1.95 A shows the enzyme to consist of two clearly separated domains that are assembled in a hexameric structure resembling a three-bladed propeller. The blades are formed by two N-terminal domains each, and the compact central hub assembles the C-terminal kinase domains.

Quorum Sensing

Quorum sensing is a system of stimulus and response correlated to population density.

Learning Objectives

Explain the mechanism of quorum sensing in bacteria

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Some of the best-known examples of quorum sensing come from studies of bacteria.
  • Bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate certain behaviors based on the local density of the bacterial population.
  • Bacteria that use quorum sensing constitutively produce and secrete certain signaling molecules (called autoinducers or pheromones).

Key Terms

  • quorum sensing: Quorum sensing is a system of stimulus and response correlated to population density. Many species of bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population.
  • density: A measure of the amount of matter contained by a given volume.
  • population: A collection of organisms of a particular species, sharing a particular characteristic of interest, most often that of living in a given area.

Quorum sensing is a system of stimulus and response correlated to population density. Many species of bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population. In similar fashion, some social insects use quorum sensing to determine where to nest. In addition to its function in biological systems, quorum sensing has several useful applications for computing and robotics.

Quorum sensing can function as a decision-making process in any decentralized system, as long as individual components have: (a) a means of assessing the number of other components they interact with and (b) a standard response once a threshold number of components is detected.

Quorum sensing may be achieved by degrading the signalling molecule. Using a KG medium, quorum quenching bacteria can be readily isolated from various environments including that which has previously been considered as unculturable. Recently, a well-studied quorum quenching bacterium has been isolated and its AHL degradation kinetic has been studied by using rapid resolution liquid chromatography (RRLC).

Some of the best-known examples of quorum sensing come from studies of bacteria. Bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate certain behaviors based on the local density of the bacterial population. Quorum sensing can occur within a single bacterial species as well as between diverse species, and can regulate a host of different processes, in essence, serving as a simple communication network. A variety of different molecules can be used as signals. Common classes of signaling molecules are oligopeptides in Gram-positive bacteria, N-Acyl Homoserine Lactones (AHL) in Gram-negative bacteria, and a family of autoinducers known as autoinducer-2 (AI-2) in both Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria.

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Quorum Sensing: Model of Quorum sensing.

Bacteria that use quorum sensing constitutively produce and secrete certain signaling molecules (called autoinducers or pheromones). These bacteria also have a receptor that can specifically detect the signaling molecule (inducer). When the inducer binds the receptor, it activates transcription of certain genes, including those for inducer synthesis. There is a low likelihood of a bacterium detecting its own secreted inducer. Thus, in order for gene transcription to be activated, the cell must encounter signaling molecules secreted by other cells in its environment. When only a few other bacteria of the same kind are in the vicinity, diffusion reduces the concentration of the inducer in the surrounding medium to almost zero, so the bacteria produce little inducer. However, as the population grows, the concentration of the inducer passes a threshold, causing more inducer to be synthesized. This forms a positive feedback loop, and the receptor becomes fully activated. Activation of the receptor induces the up-regulation of other specific genes, causing all of the cells to begin transcription at approximately the same time. This coordinated behavior of bacterial cells can be useful in a variety of situations. For instance, the bioluminescent luciferase produced by Vibrio fischeri would not be visible if it were produced by a single cell. By using quorum sensing to limit the production of luciferase to situations when cell populations are large, V. fischeri cells are able to avoid wasting energy on the production of useless product.

Three-dimensional structures of proteins involved in quorum sensing were first published in 2001, when the crystal structures of three LuxS orthologs were determined by X-ray crystallography. In 2002, the crystal structure of the receptor LuxP of Vibrio harveyi with its inducer AI-2 (which is one of the few biomolecules containing boron) bound to it was also determined. Many bacterial species, including E. coli, an enteric bacterium and model organism for Gram-negative bacteria, produce AI-2. A comparative genomic and phylogenetic analysis of 138 genomes of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes found that “the LuxS enzyme required for AI-2 synthesis is widespread in bacteria, while the periplasmic binding protein LuxP is present only in Vibrio strains,” leading to the conclusion that either “other organisms may use components different from the AI-2 signal transduction system of Vibrio strains to sense the signal of AI-2 or they do not have such a quorum sensing system at all. ” Certain bacteria can produce enzymes called lactonases that can target and inactivate AHLs.

Control of Transcription in Archaea

Transcription and translation in archaea resemble these processes in eukaryotes more than in bacteria.

Learning Objectives

Compare the archaea with bacteria and eukaryotes in terms of their general mechanisms of gene expression

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The proteins that archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes share form a common core of cell function, relating mostly to transcription, translation, and nucleotide metabolism.
  • The archaean RNA polymerase and ribosomes are very close to their equivalents in eukaryotes.
  • However, other archaean transcription factors are closer to those found in bacteria.

Key Terms

  • archaea: a taxonomic domain of single-celled organisms lacking nuclei that are fundamentally different from bacteria.
  • transcription: Transcription is the process of creating a complementary RNA copy of a sequence of DNA. Both RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, which use base pairs of nucleotides as a complementary language that can be converted back and forth from DNA to RNA by the action of the correct enzymes.
  • eukaryotes: A eukaryote is an organism whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. Eukaryotes may more formally be referred to as the taxon Eukarya or Eukaryota. The defining membrane-bound structure that sets eukaryotic cells apart from prokaryotic cells is the nucleus, or nuclear envelope, within which the genetic material is carried.

The Archaea constitute a domain of single-celled microorganisms. These microbes have no cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles within their cells.

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Archaea: An image of Halobacteria sp. strain NRC-1, each cell about 5 μm long

Archaea are genetically distinct from bacteria and eukaryotes, with up to 15% of the proteins encoded by any one archaeal genome being unique to the domain, even though most of these unique genes have no known function. Of the remainder of the unique proteins that have an identified function, most belong to the Euryarchaea and are involved in methanogenesis. The proteins that archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes share form a common core of cell function, relating mostly to transcription, translation, and nucleotide metabolism. Other characteristic archaean features are the organization of genes of related function—such as enzymes that catalyze steps in the same metabolic pathway into novel operons, and large differences in tRNA genes and their aminoacyl tRNA synthetases.

Transcription and translation in archaea resemble these processes in eukaryotes more than in bacteria, with the archaean RNA polymerase and ribosomes being very close to their equivalents in eukaryotes. Although archaea only have one type of RNA polymerase, its structure and function in transcription seems to be close to that of the eukaryotic RNA polymerase II, with similar protein assemblies (the general transcription factors) directing the binding of the RNA polymerase to a gene’s promoter. However, other archaean transcription factors are closer to those found in bacteria. Post-transcriptional modification is simpler than in eukaryotes, since most archaean genes lack introns, although there are many introns in their transfer RNA and ribosomal RNA genes, and introns may occur in a few protein-encoding genes.