Theses Doctoral

Production and properties of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa R-body virulence factor

Wang, Bryan

Even though it has been decades since antibiotics were put into widespread use, bacterial infections are a worsening source of morbidity and mortality worldwide. This is partially due to the formation of biofilms. Biofilms are populations of microbial cells embedded in self-produced matrices and their formation can enhance survival of the pathogen in the host. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a major cause of acute and chronic infections and an excellent model for the study of opportunistic, biofilm-based infections. It produces a plethora of virulence factors and we do not fully understand how it harms the host.

This thesis investigates the synthesis and characteristics of the Refractile-body (R-body), a newly identified P. aeruginosa virulence factor and potential roles of this virulence factor during host colonization. R-bodies are large proteinaceous polymers that are produced as a coiled ribbon but can extend to form a spear-like structure that is longer than a bacterial cell. Further, the R-body is produced stochastically and the producing minority is thought to contribute to success of the population through altruistic suicide. The purpose of this thesis is to characterize yet another virulence factor in the arsenal of the notorious pathogen P. aeruginosa. Further, the capacity for R-body production is present in diverse bacteria, and characterization of its function could be pertinent for our understanding of other bacteria with roles in medicine, agriculture, and industry.

In Chapter 1, I introduce concepts from the fields of bacterial infectious disease, population biology and gene expression to provide context for my research findings on the R-body. In Chapter 2, I describe the discovery of R-body polymers in the P. aeruginosa PA14 biofilm. Using mass spectrometry analysis, I identified a novel P. aeruginosa R-body protein absent in the Caedibacter taeniospiralis and Azorhizobium caulinodans genomes, two bacteria for which R-body production had previously been described. Further, results in the chapter elucidate the role of R-bodies in P. aeruginosa PA14 colonization in the plant and virulence in the nematode hosts.

The work described in Chapter 3 focuses on the transcription factor RcgA, which is required for R-body production. The gene encoding RcgA lies in a cluster and is co-expressed with R-body structural genes. Using established genetic tools, I asked the question, “what signal does RcgA sense?” I found that RcgA binding to a cyclic nucleotide is necessary for its function in turning on R-body genes. I present data in Chapter 3 and 4 that sheds light on the regulatory logic of R-body production in P. aeruginosa. Specifically, using single-cell resolution methods, I have been able to characterize the impact of various genes on stochasticity of R-body production in the population. Data presented in these chapters are another example of the importance of studying heterogeneity and stochasticity of virulence factor expression in the population.

Taken together, the work in this thesis provides an expanded and multifaceted understanding of a fascinating virulence factor found across bacterial phylogeny. The R-body produced by P. aeruginosa, a notorious human pathogen, is unique in its makeup and should be further characterized. This work also underscores the necessity of studying bacterial pathogenicity in the context of the biofilm lifestyle.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biological Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Dietrich, Lars
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2022