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Summary

Quorum sensing is a cell-to-cell signalling mechanism in which bacteria secrete hormone-like compounds called autoinducers. When these auto-inducers reach a certain threshold concentration, they interact with bacterial transcriptional regulators, thereby regulating gene expression. Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) O157:H7 as well as E. coli K-12 produces the autoinducer-2 (AI-2), which is synthesized by the product of the luxS gene, and previous work from our laboratory has shown that genes encoding the EHEC type III secretion system were activated by quorum sensing. Recently, by hybridizing an E. coli K-12 gene array with cDNA synthesized from RNA extracted from EHEC strain 86-24 and its isogenic luxS mutant, we observed that other potential virulence-associated factors, such as genes encoding the expression and assembly of flagella, motility and chemotaxis, were also activated by quorum sensing. The array data also indicated that several genes encoding putative E. coli regulators were controlled by quorum sensing. In this report, we describe a two-component system regulated by quorum sensing that shares homology with Salmonella typhimurium PmrAB, which we have named quorum sensing E. coli regulator B and C (QseBC). The qseBC genes, previously identified only as open reading frames b3025 and b3026, are organized in an operon in the E. coli chromosome, with qseB encoding the response regulator and qseC the sensor kinase. We confirmed the regulation of qseBC by quorum sensing using qseB::lacZ transcriptional fusions and characterized the phenotypes of an isogenic qseC mutation in EHEC. This mutant expressed less flagellin and had reduced motility compared with the wild-type and complemented strains. Transcription of flhD, fliA, motA and fliC::lacZ fusions was decreased in the qseC mutant, suggesting that qseBC is a transcriptional regulator of flagella genes. A qseC mutant was also generated in E. coli K-12 strain MC1000 that showed the same phenotypes as the EHEC mutant, indicating that qseBC regulates flagella and motility by quorum sensing in both EHEC and K-12. QseBC activates transcription of flhDC, which is the master regulator for the flagella and motility genes and, in the absence of flhD, QseBC failed to activate the transcription of fliA. Motility of a luxS, but not of a qseC, mutant can be restored by providing AI-2 exogenously as preconditioned media, suggesting that the qseC mutant is unable to respond to AI-2. However, QseC has no effect on the expression of other quorum sensing-controlled genes such as those encoding for the type III secretion system. These data indicate that QseBC is one component of the quorum-sensing regulatory cascade in both EHEC and K-12 that is involved in the regulation of flagella and motility genes, but that additional regulators in this cascade remain to be characterized.