Timing Is Everything: Impact of Naturally Occurring Staphylococcus aureus AgrC Cytoplasmic Domain Adaptive Mutations on Autoinduction

Tim J. Sloan, Ewan Murray, Maho Yokoyama, Ruth C. Massey, Weng C. Chan, Boyan B. Bonev, Paul Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

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Mutations in the polymorphic Staphylococcus aureusagr locus responsible for quorum sensing (QS)-dependent virulence gene regulation occur frequently during host adaptation. In two genomically closely related S. aureus clinical isolates exhibiting marked differences in Panton-Valentine leukocidin production, a mutation conferring an N267I substitution was identified in the cytoplasmic domain of the QS sensor kinase, AgrC. This natural mutation delayed the onset and accumulation of autoinducing peptide (AIP) and showed reduced responsiveness to exogenous AIPs. Other S. aureus strains harboring naturally occurring AgrC cytoplasmic domain mutations were identified, including T247I, I311T, A343T, L245S, and F264C. These mutations were associated with reduced cytotoxicity, delayed/reduced AIP production, and impaired sensitivity to exogenous AIP. Molecular dynamics simulations were used to model the AgrC cytoplasmic domain conformational changes arising. Although mutations were localized in different parts of the C-terminal domain, their impact on molecular structure was manifested by twisting of the leading helical hairpin α1-α2, accompanied by repositioning of the H-box and G-box, along with closure of the flexible loop connecting the two and occlusion of the ATP-binding site. Such conformational rearrangements of key functional subdomains in these mutants highlight the cooperative response of molecular structure involving dimerization and ATP binding and phosphorylation, as well as the binding site for the downstream response element AgrA. These appear to increase the threshold for agr activation via AIP-dependent autoinduction, thus reducing virulence and maintaining S. aureus in an agr-downregulated "colonization" mode.IMPORTANCE Virulence factor expression in Staphylococcus aureus is regulated via autoinducing peptide (AIP)-dependent activation of the sensor kinase AgrC, which forms an integral part of the agr quorum sensing system. In response to bound AIP, the cytoplasmic domain of AgrC (AgrC-cyt) undergoes conformational changes resulting in dimerization, autophosphorylation, and phosphotransfer to the response regulator AgrA. Naturally occurring mutations in AgrC-cyt are consistent with repositioning of key functional domains, impairing dimerization and restricting access to the ATP-binding pocket. Strains harboring specific AgrC-cyt mutations exhibit reduced AIP autoinduction efficiency and a timing-dependent attenuation of cytotoxicity which may confer a survival advantage during established infection by promoting colonization while restricting unnecessary overproduction of exotoxins.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00409-19
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Bacteriology
Issue number20
Early online date20 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2019


  • AgrC
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • accessory gene regulator (agr)
  • autoinducing peptide (AIP)
  • exotoxins
  • molecular dynamics
  • quorum sensing
  • sensor kinase
  • virulence

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