References and Links to Relevant Papers

Justin R. Kaspar, Kyulim Lee, Brook Richard, Alejandro R. Walker & Robert A. Burne

The formation of dental caries is a complex process that ultimately leads to damage of the tooth enamel from acids produced by microbes in attached biofilms. The bacterial interactions occurring within these biofilms between cariogenic bacteria, such as the mutans streptococci, and health-associated commensal streptococci, are thought to be critical determinants of health and disease. To better understand these interactions, a Streptococcus mutans reporter strain that actively monitors cell–cell communication via peptide signaling was cocultured with different commensal streptococci. Signaling by S. mutans, normally highly active in monoculture, was completely inhibited by several species of commensals, but only when the bacteria were in direct contact with S. mutans. We identified a novel gene expression pattern that occurred in S. mutans when cultured directly with these commensals. Finally, mutant derivatives of commensals lacking previously shown antagonistic gene products displayed wild-type levels of signal inhibition in cocultures. Collectively, these results reveal a novel pathway(s) in multiple health-associated commensal streptococci that blocks peptide signaling and induces a common contact-dependent pattern of differential gene expression in S. mutans. Understanding the molecular basis for this inhibition will assist in the rational design of new risk assessments, diagnostics, and treatments for the most pervasive oral infectious diseases.

Justin R Kaspar and Alejandro R Walker

Streptococci, including the dental pathogen Streptococcus mutans, undergo cell-to-cell signaling that is mediated by small peptides to control critical physiological functions such as adaptation to the environment, control of subpopulation behaviors and regulation of virulence factors. One such model pathway is the regulation of genetic competence, controlled by the ComRS signaling system and the peptide XIP. However, recent research in the characterization of this pathway has uncovered novel operons and peptides that are intertwined into its regulation. These discoveries, such as cell lysis playing a critical role in XIP release and importance of bacterial self-sensing during the signaling process, have caused us to reevaluate previous paradigms and shift our views on the true purpose of these signaling systems. The finding of new peptides such as the ComRS inhibitor XrpA and the peptides of the RcrRPQ operon also suggests there may be more peptides hidden in the genomes of streptococci that could play critical roles in the physiology of these organisms. In this review, we summarize the recent findings in S. mutans regarding the integration of other circuits into the ComRS signaling pathway, the true mode of XIP export, and how the RcrRPQ operon controls competence activation. We also look at how new technologies can be used to re-annotate the genome to find new open reading frames that encode peptide signals. Together, this summary of research will allow us to reconsider how we perceive these systems to behave and lead us to expand our vocabulary of peptide signals within the genus Streptococcus.

Robert C Shields, Justin R Kaspar, Kyulim Lee, Simon AM Underhill, Robert A Burne

Tagging of bacteria with fluorescent proteins has become an essential component of modern microbiology. Fluorescent proteins can be used to monitor gene expression and biofilm growth and to visualize host-pathogen interactions. Here, we developed a collection of fluorescent protein reporter plasmids for Streptococcus mutans UA159 and other oral streptococci. Using superfolder green fluorescent protein (sfGFP) as a reporter for transcriptional activity, we were able to characterize four strong constitutive promoters in S. mutans. These promoter-sfgfp fusions worked both for single-copy chromosomal integration and on a multicopy plasmid, with the latter being segregationally stable in the absence of selective pressure under the conditions tested. We successfully labeled S. mutans UA159, Streptococcus gordonii DL1, and Streptococcus sp. strain A12 with sfGFP, DsRed-Express2 (red), and citrine (yellow). To test these plasmids under more challenging conditions, we performed mixed-species biofilm experiments and separated fluorescent populations using fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). This allowed us to visualize two streptococci at a time and quantify the amounts of each species simultaneously. These fluorescent reporter plasmids add to the genetic toolbox available for the study of oral streptococci.

Justin Kaspar, Simon AM Underhill, Robert C Shields, Adrian Reyes, Suzanne Rosenzweig, Stephen J Hagen, Robert A Burne

Gram-positive bacteria utilize exported peptides to coordinate genetic and physiological processes required for biofilm formation, stress responses, and ecological competitiveness. One example is activation of natural genetic competence by ComR and the comX-inducing peptide (XIP) in Streptococcus mutans. Although the competence pathway can be activated by the addition of synthetic XIP in defined medium, the hypothesis that XIP is able to function as an intercellular signaling molecule has not been rigorously tested. Coculture model systems were developed that included a “sender” strain that overexpressed the XIP precursor (ComS) and a “responder” strain harboring a green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter fused to a ComR-activated gene (comX) promoter. The ability of the sender strain to provide a signal to activate GFP expression was monitored at the individual cell and population levels using (i) planktonic culture systems, (ii) cells suspended in an agarose matrix, or (iii) cells growing in biofilms. XIP was shown to be freely diffusible, and XIP signaling between the S. mutans sender and responder strains did not require cell-to-cell contact. The presence of a sucrose-derived exopolysaccharide matrix diminished the efficiency of XIP signaling in biofilms, possibly by affecting the spatial distribution of XIP senders and potential responders. Intercellular signaling was greatly impaired in a strain lacking the primary autolysin, AtlA, and was substantially greater when the sender strain underwent lysis. Collectively, these data provide evidence that S. mutans XIP can indeed function as a peptide signal between cells and highlight the importance of studying signaling with an endogenously produced peptide(s) in populations in various environments and physiologic states.

Justin R Kaspar, Matthew J Godwin, Irina M Velsko, Vincent P Richards, Robert A Burne

Chlorhexidine (CHX) has been used to control dental caries caused by acid-tolerant bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans since the 1970s. Repeat CHX exposure for other bacterial species results in the development of variants with reduced susceptibility that also become more resistant to other antimicrobials. It has not been tested if such variants arise when streptococci are exposed to CHX. Here, we passaged S. mutans in increasing concentrations of CHX and isolated spontaneously arising reduced susceptibility variants (RSVs) from separate lineages that have MICs that are up to 3-fold greater than the parental strain. The RSVs have increased growth rates at neutral pH and under acidic conditions in the presence of CHX but accumulate less biomass in biofilms. RSVs display higher MICs for daptomycin and clindamycin but increased sensitivity to dental-relevant antimicrobials triclosan and sodium fluoride. Plate-based assays for competition with health-associated oral streptococci revealed decreased bacteriocin production by the RSVs, increased sensitivity to hydrogen peroxide, and diminished competitive fitness in a human-derived ex vivo biofilm consortium. Whole-genome sequencing identified common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within a diacylglycerol kinase homolog and a glycolipid synthesis enzyme, which could alter the accumulation of lipoteichoic acids and other envelope constituents, as well as a variety of mutations in other genes. Collectively, these findings confirm that S. mutans and likely other streptococci can develop tolerance to CHX but that increased tolerance comes at a fitness cost, such that CHX-induced variants that spontaneously arise in the human oral cavity may not persist.

Justin Kaspar, Robert C Shields, Robert A Burne

Streptococcus mutans displays complex regulation of natural genetic competence. Competence development in S. mutans is controlled by a peptide derived from ComS (XIP); which along with the cytosolic regulator ComR controls the expression of the alternative sigma factor comX, the master regulator of competence development. Recently, a gene embedded within the coding region of comX was discovered and designated xrpA (comX regulatory peptide A). XrpA was found to be an antagonist of ComX, but the mechanism was not established. In this study, we reveal through both genomic and proteomic techniques that XrpA is the first described negative regulator of ComRS systems in streptococci. Transcriptomic and promoter activity assays in the ΔxrpA strain revealed an up‐regulation of genes controlled by both the ComR‐ and ComX‐regulons. An in vivo protein crosslinking and in vitro fluorescent polarization assays confirmed that the N‐terminal region of XrpA were found to be sufficient in inhibiting ComR‐XIP complex binding to ECom‐box located within the comX promoter. This inhibitory activity was sufficient for decreases in PcomX activity, transformability and ComX accumulation. XrpA serving as a modulator of ComRS activity ultimately results in changes to subpopulation behaviors and cell fate during competence activation.

Justin Kaspar, Sang‐Joon Ahn, Sara R Palmer, Sang Chul Choi, Michael J Stanhope, Robert A Burne

Streptococcus mutans displays complex regulation of genetic competence, with ComX controlling late competence gene transcription. The rcrRPQ operon has been shown to link oxidative stress tolerance, (p)ppGpp metabolism and competence in S. mutans. Importantly, an rcrR polar (ΔrcrR‐P) mutant is hyper‐transformable, but an rcrR non‐polar (ΔrcrR‐NP) mutant cannot be transformed. Transcriptome comparisons of the rcrR mutants using RNA‐Seq and quantitative real‐time polymerase chain reaction revealed little expression in the 5′ region of comX in ΔrcrR‐NP, but high level expression in the 3′ region. Northern blotting with comX probes revealed two distinct transcripts in the ΔrcrR‐P and ΔrcrR‐NP strains, and 5′ Rapid Amplification of cDNA Ends mapped the 5′ terminus of the shorter transcript to nt +140 of the comX structural gene, where a unique 69‐aa open reading frame, termed XrpA, was encoded in a different reading frame than ComX. Two single‐nucleotide substitution mutants (comX::T162C; comX::T210A) were introduced to disrupt XrpA without affecting the sequence of ComX. When the mutations were in the ΔrcrR‐NP genetic background, ComX production and transformation were restored. Overexpression of xrpA led to impaired growth in aerobic conditions and decreased transformability. These results reveal an unprecedented mechanism for competence regulation and stress tolerance by a gene product encoded within the comX gene that appears unique to S. mutans.

Justin Kaspar, Jeong N Kim, Sang-Joon Ahn, Robert A Burne

The microbes that inhabit the human oral cavity are subjected to constant fluctuations in their environment. To overcome these challenges and gain a competitive advantage, oral streptococci employ numerous adaptive strategies, many of which appear to be intertwined with the development of genetic competence. Here, we demonstrate that the regulatory circuits that control development of competence in Streptococcus mutans, a primary etiological agent of human dental caries, are integrated with key stress tolerance pathways by the molecular alarmone (p)ppGpp. We first observed that the growth of a strain that does not produce (p)ppGpp (ΔrelAPQ, (p)ppGpp0) is not sensitive to growth inhibition by comX inducing peptide (XIP), unlike the wild-type strain UA159, even though XIP-dependent activation of the alternative sigma factor comX by the ComRS pathway is not impaired in the (p)ppGpp0 strain. Overexpression of a (p)ppGpp synthase gene (relP) in the (p)ppGpp0 mutant restored growth inhibition by XIP. We also demonstrate that exposure to micromolar concentrations of XIP elicited changes in (p)ppGpp accumulation in UA159. Loss of the RelA/SpoT homolog (RSH) enzyme, RelA, lead to higher basal levels of (p)ppGpp accumulation, but to decreased sensitivity to XIP and to decreases in comR promoter activity and ComX protein levels. By introducing single amino acid substitutions into the RelA enzyme, the hydrolase activity of the enzyme was shown to be crucial for full com gene induction and transformation by XIP. Finally, loss of relA resulted in phenotypic changes to ΔrcrR mutants, highlighted by restoration of transformation and ComX protein production in the otherwise non-transformable ΔrcrR-NP mutant. Thus, RelA activity and its influence on (p)ppGpp pools appears to modulate competence signaling and development through RcrRPQ and the peptide effectors encoded within rcrQ. Collectively, this study provides new insights into the molecular mechanisms that integrate intercellular communication with the physiological status of the cells and the regulation of key virulence-related phenotypes in S. mutans.


©2020 by Kaspar Lab. Proudly created with