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The agr quorum-sensing system links Staphylococcus aureus metabolism to virulence, in part by increasing bacterial survival during exposure to lethal concentrations of H2O2, a crucial host defense against S. aureus. We now report that protection by agr surprisingly extends beyond post-exponential growth to the exit from stationary phase when the agr system is no longer turned on. Thus, agr can be considered a constitutive protective factor. Deletion of agr resulted in decreased ATP levels and growth, despite increased rates of respiration or fermentation at appropriate oxygen tensions, suggesting that Δagr cells undergo a shift towards a hyperactive metabolic state in response to diminished metabolic efficiency. As expected from increased respiratory gene expression, reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulated more in the agr mutant than in wild-type cells, thereby explaining elevated susceptibility of Δagr strains to lethal H2O2 doses. Increased survival of wild-type agr cells during H2O2 exposure required sodA, which detoxifies superoxide. Additionally, pretreatment of S. aureus with respiration-reducing menadione protected Δagr cells from killing by H2O2. Thus, genetic deletion and pharmacologic experiments indicate that agr helps control endogenous ROS, thereby providing resilience against exogenous ROS. The long-lived 'memory' of agr-mediated protection, which is uncoupled from agr activation kinetics, increased hematogenous dissemination to certain tissues during sepsis in ROS-producing, wild-type mice but not ROS-deficient (Cybb-/-) mice. These results demonstrate the importance of protection that anticipates impending ROS-mediated immune attack. The ubiquity of quorum sensing suggests that it protects many bacterial species from oxidative damage.


Staphylococcus aureus, agr, infectious disease, microbiology, peroxide (H2O2), quorum-sensing, reactive oxygen species (ROS)



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