The Spo0A regulon of Bacillus subtilis



The master regulator for entry into sporulation in Bacillus subtilis is the DNA-binding protein Spo0A, which has been found to influence, directly or indirectly, the expression of over 500 genes during the early stages of development. To search on a genome-wide basis for genes under the direct control of Spo0A, we used chromatin immunoprecipitation in combination with gene microarray analysis to identify regions of the chromosome at which an activated form of Spo0A binds in vivo. This information in combination with transcriptional profiling using gene microarrays, gel electrophoretic mobility shift assays, using the DNA-binding domain of Spo0A, and bioinformatics enabled us to assign 103 genes to the Spo0A regulon in addition to 18 previously known members. Thus, in total, 121 genes, which are organized as 30 single-gene units and 24 operons, are likely to be under the direct control of Spo0A. Forty of these genes are under the positive control of Spo0A, and 81 are under its negative control. Among newly identified members of the regulon with transcription that was stimulated by Spo0A are genes for metabolic enzymes and genes for efflux pumps. Among  members  with  transcription  that  was in-hibited by Spo0A are genes encoding components of the DNA replication machinery and genes that govern flagellum biosynthesis and chemotaxis. Also in-cluded in the regulon are many (25) genes with products that are direct or indirect regulators of gene transcription. Spo0A is a master regulator for sporulation, but many of its effects on the global pattern of gene transcription are likely to be mediated indirectly by regulatory genes under its control.


Sporulation by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis is a multistage, developmental process that is responsible for the conversion of a growing cell into a dormant cell type known as the spore or endospore (Stragier and Losick, 1996; Piggot and Losick, 2002). The master regulator for entry into sporulation is the DNA-binding protein Spo0A (Hoch, 1993), which is a member of the response regulator family of transcription factors (Perego and Hoch, 2002). The activity of Spo0A is governed by a multicomponent phosphorelay, which consists of five histidine autokinases (KinA, KinB, KinC, KinD and KinE) and two phosphorelay proteins (Spo0F and Spo0B) (Jiang et al., 2000). The kinases feed phosphoryl groups into the relay by phosphorylating Spo0F. Spo0F∼P, in turn, transfers the phosphoryl groups to Spo0B, which, in the final step of the relay, phosphorylates Spo0A to create Spo0A∼P (Burbulys et al., 1991). The level of phosphorylation of Spo0A∼P is also influenced by dedicated phosphatases that remove phosphoryl groups from Spo0F∼P (e.g.RapA) and from Spo0A∼P itself (Spo0E) (Perego et al., 1994; Grossman, 1995; Perego and Hoch, 2002). Once activated by phosphorylation, the master regulator binds to a DNA sequence element known as the ‘0A-box’, where it acts as both a repressor of certain vegetatively expressed genes (e.g. abrB; Perego et al., 1988; Strauch et al., 1989; Strauch and Hoch, 1993; Fujita and Sadaie, 1998) and an activator of genes involved in sporulation (for a review, see Piggot and Losick, 2002). Among the genes activated by Spo0A∼P are those involved in remodelling the sister chromosomes of the sporulating cell into an ‘axial filament’ (Pogliano et al., 2002; Ben-Yehuda et al., 2003) and in the formation of an asymmetrically positioned (polar) septum that divides the developing cell into a small forespore compartment and a large mother cell compartment (Levin and Losick, 1996; Ben-Yehuda and Losick, 2002). Spo0A∼P is also responsible for activating genes that lead to the appearance of the cell-specific regulatory proteins σF and σE, which act in the forespore and the mother cell respectively (Stragier and Losick, 1996; Piggot and Losick, 2002). Recent work indicates that Spo0A∼P continues to function after the polar septum is formed, when it accumulates to high levels and directs transcription in the mother cell (Fujita and Losick, 2003).

Orthologues of spo0A have been identified in all endospore-forming bacteria (from the genera Bacillus and Clostridium) with genome sequences available. Interestingly, however, pathways leading to the activation of Spo0A by phosphorylation differ between Bacillus and Clostridium in that orthologues of key components of the phosphorelay (i.e. Spo0B and Spo0F) are missing in the latter. It is therefore assumed that Spo0A is phosphorylated directly by a sensor kinase(s) in Clostridium rather than indirectly through a relay (Stephenson and Hoch, 2002; Stragier, 2002). Nevertheless, it is possible that many of the same genes are under Spo0A control in both genera and, hence, it would be of interest to examine the conservation of the Spo0A regulon members among endospore formers. It would also be interesting to search for orthologues of Spo0A-controlled genes in the two members of the Listeria genus for which genome sequences are available. Listeria is closely related to Bacillus (much more so than Clostridium), but is unable to sporulate and lacks an orthologue for spo0A and for many other sporulation genes as well.

The purpose of this investigation was to attempt to identify comprehensively genes that are likely to be under the direct control of Spo0A in B. subtilis. So far, 18 genes are known that are transcribed from Spo0A-controlled promoters, and these are organized in six single-gene units (abrB, kinA, kinC, spo0A, spo0F and spoIIE) and four operons (dlt, sin, spoIIA and spoIIG) for a total of 10 transcription units. (Strauch et al., 1990; 1992; 1993; Satola et al., 1991; York et al., 1992; Asayama et al., 1995; Kobayashi et al., 1995; Perego et al., 1995; Fujita and Sadaie, 1998; Shafikhani et al., 2002). However, a complete list of the members of the Spo0A regulon has not been available. Transcriptional profiling previously revealed over 500 genes with expression levels that were significantly influenced by Spo0A (but not by the later-acting sporulation regulatory protein σF) at the start of sporulation, and over 200 genes were identified with expression that was stimulated or repressed in cells engineered to produce an activated form of Spo0A (Spo0A-Sad67; see below) during growth (Fawcett et al., 2000). Clearly, Spo0A has a profound effect on the global pattern of gene expression. But many (indeed a high proportion) of the genes so identified could be indirect targets of the master regulator. For example, some of the previously observed transcriptional effects of Spo0A could result from the action of regulatory proteins (e.g. AbrB and SinI) produced under the control of Spo0A rather than Spo0A itself. Another important transcriptional regulator, the abundance of which is influenced by Spo0A, is the stationary phase sigma factor σH. Genome-wide analysis of the σH regulon (Britton et al., 2002) has confirmed that the transcriptional profile of a σH mutant is similar to the transcriptional profile of a Spo0A mutant. However, computational searches for binding sites for each regulator in sequences upstream of σH- and Spo0A-regulated genes indicate that the lists of presumed direct targets of each regulatory protein are largely different (Fawcett et al., 2000; Britton et al., 2002).

To catalogue genes that are likely to be under the direct control of Spo0A and to do so on a genome-wide basis, we took advantage of recently developed procedures for carrying out chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) in conjunction with DNA microarray analysis (chip) in order to identify regions of the chromosome to which Spo0A binds in vivo (Ren et al., 2000; Iyer et al., 2001; see Laub et al., 2002 and Molle et al., 2003 for recent applications to DNA-binding proteins in bacteria). We have used this ‘ChIP-on-chip’ procedure in combination with transcriptional profiling and gel electrophoretic mobility shift assays to expand substantially the known members of the Spo0A regulon. Taking advantage of computational methods and our expanded list of Spo0A-controlled genes, we have updated the consensus recognition sequence for Spo0A (the 0A-box) and, by building null mutants, we have identified previously uncharacterized members of the regulon that influence sporulation.


Identification of DNA binding sites for Spo0A in vivo by ChIP-on-chip analysis

Because Spo0A is normally subject to a complex pathway of regulation, we sought to simplify our analysis by bypassing the requirement for the phosphorelay in the activation of Spo0A. To do so, we took advantage of a previously described, constitutively active form of Spo0A called Spo0A-Sad67 that does not require phosphorylation in order to be active (Ireton et al., 1993) (making the assumption that the spectrum of genes recognized by Spo0A-Sad67 is the same as that recognized by Spo0A∼P). The ChIP-on-chip experiments were carried out using cells (strain RL1104) engineered to produce Spo0A-Sad67 during growth in response to IPTG. RL1104 cells that had been grown in the presence of inducer were treated with formaldehyde to cross-link proteins to DNA. DNA from the formaldehyde-treated cells was sheared, and complexes of Spo0A with DNA were then precipitated using anti-Spo0A antibodies. Next, after reversal of the cross-links, sheared DNA from the immunoprecipitation was amplified by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) using randomly annealed primers and fluorescently labelled with Cy5. As a reference, sheared DNA from the formaldehyde cross-linking that had not been subject to immunoprecipitation (representing bulk chromosomal DNA) was similarly amplified and labelled with Cy3. Finally, a mixture of the Cy5- and Cy3-labelled DNAs was annealed under hybridization conditions with DNA microarrays imprinted with PCR-amplified DNAs corresponding to the annotated open reading frames (ORFs) in the B. subtilis genome. An enrichment factor was calculated that denotes the extent to which each gene was enriched by immunoprecipitation relative to the reference DNA.

Cells of strain RL1104 were induced for the synthesis of Spo0A-Sad67 in two independent experiments and, in each experiment, samples of cells were treated with cross-linker at 30 or 60 min after the addition of inducer. This resulted in a total of four independent preparations of cross-linked DNAs, which were processed separately for chromatin immunoprecipitation and microarray analysis. The results in Table 1 are an average of the four ChIP-on-chip experiments. As summarized in Table 1, 132 PCR-amplified ORFs were identified as representing preferential sites of binding by Spo0A-Sad67 in vivo, corresponding to 64 regions of the chromosome (i.e. in most cases, a signal was obtained for adjacent genes, thus representing a common region of the chromosome and conceivably the same binding site). Even though the enrichment factors for all these genes were identified as significant (P-value < 0.01) by the statistical program we used (Rosetta resolver), 13 genes were only slightly enriched by chromatin immunoprecipitation (enrichment factor < 1.5). Of these 13 genes, eight are adjacent to genes with an enrichment factor > 1.5, two (spoIIE and kinA) are known targets of Spo0A, and the remaining three (yxbB, dacA and yaaE) are adjacent to two genes (yxbC and yaaD) that presented some variability in the four ChIP-on-chip experiments, i.e. they were detected in some but not all the experiments (perhaps corresponding to low-affinity Spo0A binding sites).

Table 1. . The Spo0A regulon.
Region detectedaGeneEnrichmentfactorbGel shiftassaycTranscriptionalratiodFunctione
Category I: genes previously known to be directly regulated by Spo0A
spoIIGA -sigE spoIIGA 1.8+49Protease (processing of pro-σE to σE)
sigE 3.1 20Mother cell-specific early σ factor
spoIIE spoIIE 1.3+40Ser phosphatase (σFactivation)/ asymmetric septum formation
spoIIAA-spoIIAB-sigF spoIIAA 3.1+ 9.6Anti-antiσ factor (antagonist of SpoIIAB)
spoIIAB    8.1Anti-σ factor (antagonist of σF)/Ser kinase
sigF   17Forespore-specific early σ factor
kinA kinA 1.3+ 2.0Sensor histidine kinase (initiation of sporulation)
ywjG- spo0F ywjG 2.8   
spo0F 3.6+(1.6)Response regulator (multicomponent P-relay)
yabC- abrB -metS f yabC 2.7   
abrB 8.5+ 0.02Transcriptional pleiotropic regulator of transition state genes
metS 4.1+ 0.55See category III
abh- kinC abh 4.4   
kinC 1.8+ 0.37Sensor histidine kinase (initiation of sporulation)
dltA-dltB-dltC-dltD-dltE dltA 1.6+ 0.42Dcl (d-alanyl-d-Ala carrier protein ligase)
dltB 1.2  0.44 d-Ala transfer from Dcp to undecaprenol-P
dltC    0.46Dcp (d-Ala carrier protein)
dltD    0.56 d-Ala esterification of lipoteichoic acid
dltE    0.46Similar to ketoacyl reductase
sinI-sinR sinI 2.2+NDEAntagonist of SinR
sinR    0.57Transcriptional regulator of post-exponential phase responses genes
spo0A -spoIVB spo0A 1.5+NATranscriptional regulator central for the initiation of sporulation
spoIVB 2.5   
Category II: newly identified genes under the positive control of Spo0A
yxbB- yxbC yxbB 1.4   
yxbC (1.8)+52Unknown/cupin metalloenzyme-like domain
skfA (ybcO) →skfH (ybdE ) skfA 2.0+ 8.5Sporulation killing factor A
skfB   15Similar to subtilosin (antibiotic production)
skfC   22Unknown
skfD   20Unknown
skfE   20Similar to ABC transporter (binding protein)
skfF   21Similar to ABC transporter (permease)
skfG   13Unknown
skfH    7.3Unknown
sdpA (yvaW )-sdpB (yvaX )-sdpC (yvaY ) sdpA 3.1+ 5.1Sporulation-delaying protein A
sdpB 3.4 19Sporulation-delaying protein B
sdpC   (2.7)Sporulation-delaying protein C
yjcM -yjcN yjcM 1.917Similar to alcohol dehydrogenase and to coat-associated protein YhbB
yjcN 1.8   
yppD - yppE -yppF-yppG g yppD 3.8+ 13Unknown
yppE 3.9  4.3Unknown
yppF 5.5+NDESee category IV
yppG 3.9 NDE 
yttP -ytsP yttP 4.4+ 8.2Similar to transcriptional regulator (TetR/AcrR family). Probably controlled by σHh
ytsP 3.6   
ywkD-racA (ywkC ) ywkD 2.2   
racA 1.5+ 6.6Remodelling and anchoring of the chromosome to the cell pole. Probably controlled by σHi
yocI- yocH yocI 1.6   
yocH (1.7)+ 5.4Similar to cell wall-binding protein (LysM domain)
yybN -yybM yybN 2.7 5.1Unknown
yybM 1.6   
tkt- yneE -yneF j tkt 2.4+ 0.26See category III
yneE (4.1)+ 3.6Unknown
yneF 3.4   
yfmI yfmI 2.4+ 3.6Similar to macrolide efflux transporter
yusE -yusD yusE 2.8+ 3.2Unknown
yusD 4.8   
ycgL- ycgM ycgL 4.3   
ycgM 3.2+ 2.5Similar to proline oxidase
yqzI- yqcG - yqcF yqzI 1.6   
yqcG (2.1)+ 2.5Similar to transposase (located in skin element)
yqcF    2.6Unknown (located in skin element)
cwlA- yqxI cwlA 3.3   
yqxI (1.9)+ 2.4Unknown (located in skin element)
yerB yerB 2.2+ 2.2Unknown.
ytsJ- accD (yttI)-accA ytsJ 1.9   
accD 1.8+ 1.8Acetyl-CoA carboxylase (beta subunit)k
accA    1.6Acetyl-CoA carboxylase (alpha subunit)k
ykuK- ykzF - ykuL -ccpC (ykuM)l ykuK 3.3   
ykzF 2.5+NDEUnknown
ykuL 2.7+ 1.4Unknown
ccpC 2.0   
Category III: newly identified genes under the negative control of Spo0A
yueK- yuxH -yuzC yueK 3.2   
yuxH 3.1+ 0.06Unknown/EAL domain (putative diguanylate phosphodiesterase)
yuzC 1.5   
yqgL- yqzD - yqzC yqgL 3.1   
yqzD 3.9+ 0.14Unknown
yqzC 1.3  0.10Similar to aminodeoxychorismate lyase
yjaV- med yjaV 6.1   
med 2.8+ 0.12Positive regulator of comK
purT -mpr purT 2.6 0.12Phosphoribosylglycinamide formyltransferase 2
mpr 1.3   
yrzB- yrrL yrzB 3.1   
yrrL 2.0+ 0.17Similar to folate metabolism (aminodeoxychorismate lyase)
cccB- ftsE - ftsX cccB 4.0   
ftsE 2.2+ 0.20Cell division protein (ATP binding)
ftsX    0.18Cell-division protein (ABC transporter/permease)
codY- flgB - flgC ylxLm codY 2.4   
flgB 2.2+ 0.20 Fla/che operon (>26 kb cluster of 30genes); motility and chemotaxis
flgC 1.4  0.18 
phoA- lytE phoA 1.5   
lytE 2.5+ 0.19Cell wall hydrolase (major autolysin)
ykbA- ykaA ykbA 1.4   
ykaA 2.5+ 0.22Unknown/DUF47 domain
tkt -yneE-yneF  j tkt 2.4+ 0.26Transketolasek
yneE (4.1)+ 3.6See category II
yneF 3.4   
yknZ- fruR yknZ 1.3   
fruR 2.6+ 0.36Transcriptional repressor of the fructose operon
yprB- cotD - ypsA n yprB 4.0   
cotD 4.8+ 0.39Spore coat protein (inner)
ypsA 1.8 0.36Unknown
divIVA divIVA 1.9+ 0.38Cell-division protein (septum placement)
rocR- rocD - rocE - rocF rocR 2.6   
rocD 1.9+ 0.39Ornithine aminotransferase
rocE    0.41Amino acid permease
rocF    0.47Arginase
degS- yvyE - yvhJ degS 2.8  
yvyE 3.5+ 0.47Similar to Xaa-Pro dipeptidase (B. cereus)
yvhJ 1.8  0.40Similar to LytR (cell envelope-related transcriptional attenuator)
nfrA - ywcH o nfrA (2.8)+NDEFMN-containing NADPH-linked nitro/flavin reductase
ywcH 1.6+ 0.42Similar to monooxygenase
yyaB- soj - spo0J yyaB 2.4   
soj 2.0+ 0.45Negative regulation of sporulation initiation
spo0J 1.9  0.44Antagonist of Soj
ykuV- rok ykuV 2.5   
rok 3.0+ 0.47Repressor of comK
rpmH- dnaA - dnaN rpmH 3.4   
dnaA 2.3+(0.63)Initiation of chromosome replicationk
dnaN 1.8  0.50DNA polymerase III (beta subunit)k
apt- relA - yrvI apt 1.4   
relA 2.4 0.50GTP pyrophosphokinase (stringent response)
yrvI    0.67Unknown
yaaR- holB - yaaT yaaR 1.9   
holB 3.5 0.55DNA polymerase III (delta′ subunit)k
yaaT 2.6 (0.68)Unknown
yabC-abrB- metS f yabC 2.7   
abrB 8.5+ 0.02See category I
metS 4.1+ 0.55Methionyl-tRNA synthetasek
yqxD- dnaG yqxD 3.7   
dnaG 2.7+ 0.65DNA primasek
dacA- yaaD - yaaE dacA 1.3   
yaaD (1.4)+ 0.68Similar to superoxide-inducible protein
yaaE 1.2  0.66Similar to aminotransferase
ylmC 4.6   
ylmC- ylmD ylmH ylmD 2.8+(0.52)Unknown/DUF152 domain
ylmE    0.69Similar to N-terminal domain of Ala racemase
ylmF    0.71Unknown/DUF552 domain
ylmG    0.72Similar to integral membrane protein (YGGT family)
ylmH    0.82Similar to RNA biding protein (S4 family)
yjoB- rapA - phrA yjoB 2.6   
rapA 2.8+(0.39)Asp phosphatase (dephosphorylation of Spo0F∼P)
phrA    0.75Inhibitor of RapA
Category IV: genes whose transcription was not detectably influenced by Spo0A
comK comK 2.8+NDECompetence transcription factor (CTF)
degQ-comQ-comX degQ 1.6 NDEDegradative enzyme production
comQ 2.8NDETranscriptional regulator (competence)
comX 2.5 NDECompetence pheromone precursor
fliT-yvyD fliT 1.6 NDEFlagellar protein
yvyD 4.6+NDESimilar to sigma-54 modulating factor of Gram-negative bacteria (controlled by σB and σH)
murAA-spoIID murAA 1.6 NDEUDP-NAG 1-carboxyvinyltransferase
spoIID 1.9+NDEDissolution of the septal cell wall
sigV sigV 2.5NDERNA polymerase ECF-type σ factor
yabG-veg-sspF yabG 3.4 NDEProtease (controlled by σK)
veg 2.8+NDEUnknown (actively transcribed during growth)
sspF 1.6 NDESmall acid-soluble spore protein (controlled by σG)
yebG-purE-purK yebG 1.8 NDEUnknown
purE 3.7NDEPhosphoribosylaminoimidazole carboxylase I
purK 1.9 NDEPhosphoribosylaminoimidazole carboxylase II
yhzB-ygaO yhzB 3.6 NDEUnknown
ygaO 3.6+NDESimilar to RNA-dependent DNA polymerase (B. anthracis)
yjcO-yjcP-yjcQ yjcO 2.3 NDEUnknown
yjcP 2.1+NDEUnknown
yjcQ 2.8 NDEUnknown
yppD-yppE-yppF-yppG g yppD 3.8+13See category II
yppE 3.9  4.3 
yppF 5.5+NDEUnknown
yppG 3.9 NDEUnknown
yrdA-yrdB-yrdC yrdA 2.2 NDEUnknown
yrdB 4.8NDEUnknown
yrdC 2.2 NDESimilar to hydrolase (isochorismatase family)
yweA-rocG (yweB) yweA 1.4 NDEUnknown
rocG 2.1+NDEGlutamate dehydrogenase
ywqB-ywqC-ywqD ywqB 3.0 NDEUnknown
ywqC 5.3+NDESimilar to capsular polysaccharide biosynthesis
ywqD 2.5 NDESimilar to capsular polysaccharidebiosynthesis
a . Gene regions that were preferentially precipitated by antibody to Spo0A, after in vivo cross-linking, as detected by hybridization to a genomic array. The likely target gene or operon is indicated in bold characters. The likely target gene was either the enriched gene or a neighbouring, promoter-proximal gene, transcription of which is strongly affected in an inducible Spo0A-Sad67 strain.
b . The enrichment factor indicates the extent to which a gene was preferentially precipitated compared with its abundance in total DNA. All enrichment factors have associated P-values <  0.01 as judged using the resolver statistical package (Rosetta), except for enrichment factors indicated in parenthesis, where the corresponding gene was enriched in some but not all the experiments and thus has an associated P-value > 0.01.
c . A ‘+’ indicates that a gel shift was observed. Results in category I represent data from the literature, whereas results for the remaining categories are from the present work.
d . All transcription ratios have associated P-values < 0.01 as judged using the resolver statistical package (Rosetta), except for transcription ratios indicated in parenthesis, where the corresponding gene was enriched in some but not all the experiments and thus has an associated P-value >  0.01. Ratios are indicated for the likely target gene or operon.
e . Possible function according to SubtiList ( with additional annotations from   SWISSPROT/TrEMBL (, InterPro ( and Pfam (
f . This region is represented twice in the table (category I and category III) as abrB and metS are divergently and hence separately transcribed.
g . This region is represented twice in the table (category II and category IV). The yppD-yppE operon and yppF are convergent transcription units. Transcriptional data were lacking for yppF, which is a very small gene (<200 bp in length), but both transcription units are likely to be direct targets of Spo0A as both exhibited a Spo0A binding site in gel retardation assays.
h .σH target according to Britton et al. (2002).
i .σH target according to Ben-Yehuda et al. (2003).
j . This region is represented twice in the table (category II and category III). A predicted terminator is present between tkt and yneE, and the genes exhibited opposite patterns of regulation by Spo0A, indicating that they belong to distinct transcription units.
k . Essential gene for growth in LB medium according to Kobayashi et al. (2003).
l . ykzF and ykuL are considered here as forming an operon as they are transcribed in the same direction and no terminator sequence has been found between the two genes. However, as both genes exhibited a shift in the gel retardation assays, it is equally possible that they constitute two independent transcription units regulated from distinct Spo0A binding sites.
m . For conciseness, only two of the 30 genes of the fla/che operon have been listed in the table, but expression of every gene in the operon was significantly downregulated (P-value <  0.01) in cells in which Spo0A-Sad67 synthesis was induced.
n . Although a predicted terminator is present between cotD and ypsA, the two genes are presumably co-regulated by Spo0A as only cotD was shifted in the gel retardation assays.
o . According to the results of Moch et al. (2000), nfrA and ywcH are considered here as an operon. However, it is possible that they constitute two independent transcription units as a predicted terminator is present between the two genes, and both genes were shifted in the gel retardation assays.
NA, not applicable.
NDE, gene was not differentially expressed in induced cells compared with uninduced cells.

Binding sites for transcriptional regulatory proteins, such as Spo0A, generally lie upstream of and outside the ORFs for the genes they control. Yet the microarrays were spotted with PCR products corresponding to protein-coding sequences, not to intergenic regions. As a consequence, the signals obtained in the microarray analysis were expected to arise chiefly from the overlap of the fluorescently labelled probes from the sheared DNA fragments with a Spo0A binding site, on the one hand, and with a nearby ORF, on the other. This meant that, in some cases, and in particular in cases in which a Spo0A-binding site was located between two divergently transcribed genes, it was not immediately apparent which ORF was under the control of Spo0A. Also, it was possible that, in some cases, the sites at which Spo0A-Sad67 binding was observed were not physiologically significant as a control site at which Spo0A (or Spo0A-Sad67) stimulated or repressed transcription in vivo. With these considerations in mind, we also carried out transcriptional profiling in an effort to correlate the binding sites with genes whose transcription was influenced by Spo0A-Sad67.

Transcriptional profiling

Transcriptional profiling was carried out using cells engineered to produce Spo0A-Sad67 in response to IPTG. Cells of strain RL1104 were grown to the mid-exponential phase of growth, at which time the cultures were split in two, and synthesis of Spo0A-Sad67 was induced by the addition of IPTG to one of the cultures. Samples of cells from the IPTG-treated culture were collected for RNA extraction at 30 min and 60 min after the addition of inducer. For reference, samples of cells were similarly collected in parallel at the corresponding times from the untreated culture (Fig. 1B). Next, cDNAs were generated from the IPTG-treated cells harvested at 30 min after the addition of inducer and labelled with Cy5. Likewise, cDNAs were generated from the untreated cells harvested at the equivalent time and labelled with Cy3. The two cDNAs were mixed and annealed with DNA microarrays under hybridization conditions. Similarly, cDNAs were generated and differentially labelled with Cy5 and Cy3 from treated and untreated cells harvested at 60 min; As for the 30 min time point, the Cy3- and Cy5-labelled cDNAs from the 60 min time point were mixed and used to probe DNA microarrays. The entire procedure was carried out independently a total of four times for the 30 min time point and four times for the 60 min time point.

Figure 1.

Gel electrophoretic mobility shift analysis of the binding of Spo0A to putative regulatory regions for genes under its control. The regulatory regions of potential target genes were amplified by PCR using radioactive primers, incubated with the purified DNA-binding domain of Spo0A at the indicated concentrations and analysed by non-denaturing PAGE (see Experimental procedures).
A. Gel shifts for controls. abrB is a known target of Spo0A and represents a positive control. citG and spoVG are negative controls.
B. Gel shifts for genes in categories II, III and IV.

Of the 64 regions that were identified in the ChIP-on-chip analysis, 52 contained at least one gene that revealed a significant increase or decrease in hybridization signal in the transcriptional profiling analysis. Genes that were located at or near a site of Spo0A-Sad67 binding, as judged by the ChIP-on-chip analysis, and with transcription that was influenced by Spo0A-Sad67 were considered to be likely targets of direct regulation by Spo0A and are represented in bold in the lefthand column of Table 1. In many cases, more than one gene in a region of the chromosome at which Spo0A-Sad67 binding was detected were altered in their level of transcription in response to Spo0A-Sad67. In all but two cases, the genes in question were contiguous, oriented in the same direction and responded in a co-ordinate manner to Spo0A-Sad67 and, hence, probably constituted a single Spo0A-controlled operon. However, in one case, two adjacent genes (tkt and yneE) responded oppositely to Spo0A-Sad67 (tkt being repressed and yneE being stimulated) and, in another case (abrB and metS), the two genes are arranged in a divergent orientation. We therefore interpret our results to indicate that tkt, yneE, abrB and metS are each separately under the control of Spo0A. With these considerations in mind, the total number of Spo0A-regulated transcription units comes to 54 (52 plus 2).

In some cases, the Spo0A-controlled operons detected in our analysis included genes, as judged by the transcriptional profiling analysis, that extended outside the region of the chromosome at which Spo0A-Sad67 binding was detected. For example, ybcO, which has been renamed skfA, is the first member of a Spo0A-controlled operon that contains eight genes (present findings; González-Pastor et al., 2003). In this case, only the gene most proximal to the binding site for Spo0A was detected in the ChIP-on-chip analysis. Likewise, yvaW, which has been renamed sdpA, is the promoter-proximal gene of a three-cistron operon, of which only the first two members exhibited a signal in the ChIP-on-chip analysis (González-Pastor et al., 2003). Therefore, based on the results of the transcriptional profiling experiments, we infer that the 54 transcription units correspond to 30 single-gene transcription units and 24 operons, which include 91 genes, for a grand total of 121 genes that are likely to be under the direct control of Spo0A (Table 1).

How successful was our analysis in detecting genes previously known to be under the direct control of Spo0A? Ten transcription units (six single-gene units and four operons, representing a total of 18 genes) were previously known to be under the direct control of Spo0A. Examples of such transcription units, which we refer to as category I, are spoIIA and spoIIG, which are induced during sporulation, and abrB, which is repressed during sporulation. For all 10 of these Spo0A-controlled transcription units, a statistically significant signal was detected in the ChIP-on-chip experiments at or near the gene (or the promoter-proximal member in the case of an operon), although in two cases (spoIIE and kinA), the enrichment factor was low. The low signal was especially surprising in the case of spoIIE, which is a strongly expressed target of Spo0A. A possible explanation is that genes adjacent to target genes were frequently observed to exhibit a stronger signal than the target gene itself. In the case of spoIIE, the adjacent, upstream gene is a tRNA gene, which was not represented in our microarray. Furthermore, all the transcription units except spo0F exhibited a statistically significant alteration in their level of transcription in response to Spo0A. (Spo0A is both a positive and a negative regulator of spo0F and, hence, the effect of Spo0A on spo0F transcription would have been dependent on the precise concentration of the response regulator under the conditions of our experiments; Strauch et al., 1993; Asayama et al., 1995; Fujita and Sadaie, 1998.) Thus, all previously known, direct targets of Spo0A regulation were detected both in the ChIP-on-chip analysis and in the transcriptional profiling experiments, although in some cases the signals were at or near the limits of detection.

Category I, as we have seen, includes 10 transcription units and 18 genes. The remaining 44 transcription units (54 minus 10), representing 103 genes (121 minus 18), were candidates for previously unrecognized members of the Spo0A regulon. Of these, 18 transcription units (representing 31 genes) were genes and operons with transcription that was stimulated by Spo0A-Sad67 during growth and 26 transcription units (72 genes) with a level of transcription that was lower at one or both time points. Previously unrecognized members of the regulon with transcription that was stimulated by Spo0A-Sad67 are referred to as category II ,and those with transcription that was inhibited by Spo0A-Sad67 are referred to as category III.

Of the 18 transcription units in category II, all but five (yjcM, yppD–yppE, yfmI, yusE, yerB) had previously been observed to be induced during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner (Fawcett et al., 2000). Thus, for 13 of the transcription units in category II, the results from ChIP-on-chip analysis and transcriptional profiling during growth with Spo0A-Sad67 were complemented by transcriptional profiling carried out during sporulation. Likewise, of the 26 transcription units in category III with transcription that was inhibited by Spo0A-Sad67, all but seven (yaaD–yaaE, dnaG, dnaA–dnaN, holB–yaaT, rok, soj–spo0J and purE) had previously been observed to be repressed in a Spo0A-dependent manner upon entry into sporulation. As a word of caution, some of the repression effects were small and, in the case of dnaA–dnaN, experiments carried out by A. Goranov and A. Grossman (personal communication) under conditions of growth in minimal medium failed to detect Spo0A-Sad67-dependent inhibition of transcription.

The ChIP-on-chip analysis revealed 13 additional chromosomal regions (category IV) at which Spo0A-Sad67 binding was observed but for which transcriptional profiling revealed no genes with a level of transcription that was significantly influenced by Spo0A-Sad-67. Possible explanations for genes in this category are: (i) the binding by Spo0A-Sad67 was not physiologically significant; (ii) the gene is under Spo0A control during sporulation but was transcribed at too low a level to have been detected during growth in response to Spo0A-Sad67; (iii) transcription of the gene requires an unknown positive regulatory protein in addition to Spo0A that was absent or inactive under the vegetative growth conditions of our experiment. Indeed, A. Goranov and A. Grossman (personal communication) have observed stimulation of the category IV gene pair fliT yvyD, repression of the yweA rocG gene pair and repression of the ywqB ywqC ywqD cluster by Spo0A-Sad67 under conditions of growth in minimal medium. Reinforcing the view that ywqC is a bona fide target of Spo0A, Fawcett et al. (2000) observed that it is repressed in a Spo0A-dependent manner during sporulation. At least two other genes in category IV are also likely to be bona fide targets of Spo0A, as their transcription was previously found to increase ( in the case of comQ) or decrease (in the case of ygaO) during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner (Fawcett et al., 2000).

Gel electrophoretic mobility shift assays of Spo0A binding

Genes in categories II and III are strong candidates for previously unrecognized members of the Spo0A regulon because they are at or near binding sites for Spo0A-Sad67 and because their transcription was significantly influenced by the regulatory protein. As a further test of whether these genes are direct targets of Spo0A, we investigated whether Spo0A would bind to the putative upstream regulatory regions for all the transcription units in categories II and III in vitro (in the case of putative multigene transcription units, we tested binding to the upstream region of the most upstream member of the unit). We also included all the genes in category IV in our analysis. Finally, we included abrB, which is known to be under the direct control of Spo0A, as a positive control, and citG and spoVG as negative controls. The binding experiments were carried out using radioactive DNAs that extended 200 bp upstream from the translational start site for the genes tested and a truncated form of Spo0A that corresponded to its DNA-binding domain, which is located in the C-terminal portion of the protein (Fig. 1). This truncated protein lacks the region in which phosphorylation takes place and is known to bind to DNA in a manner that is independent of phosphorylation (Rowe-Magnus and Spiegelman, 1998). DNA binding was assessed using a gel electrophoretic mobility shift assay (EMSA).

The results show that the truncated protein interacted measurably with the upstream regions for 17 out of 19 genes in category II and 24 out of 28 genes in category III (Fig. 1 and Table 1). Thus, in total, we were able to confirm biochemically the presence of a Spo0A binding site for 41 of our best candidates for newly identified members of the regulon. Of the remaining 13 genes (category IV) for which a binding site was detected in vivo but transcription of which was not found to be influenced by Spo0A-Sad67, 10 genes were identified with upstream regions that contained a binding site for the truncated Spo0A protein.

Use of bioinformatics to identify an unbiased consensus binding sequence for Spo0A

A consensus binding site for Spo0A, the seven nucleotide sequence 5′-TGTCGAA-3′, was reported previously based on binding studies of the response regulator to the regulatory region of genes known to be under its direct control (Strauch et al., 1990; Baldus et al., 1994), and mutational analysis has confirmed the importance of the G:C basepair at position five (5′-TGTCGAA-3′) in Spo0A binding (Satola et al., 1991; York et al., 1992). Also, a co-crystal of the DNA-binding domain of Spo0A to a synthetic consensus binding sequence showed that the G at position 2 on the upper strand, the C at position 4 on the upper strand and the G at position 4 on the lower strand contact amino acid side-chains in the protein (Zhao et al., 2002). We wished to take advantage of our identification of 64 regions of the chromosome for which Spo0A-Sad67 binding was observed in an independent computational approach to identifying the consensus binding site that was unbiased by the previously arrived at consensus.

The first step in our strategy was to use the Gibbs sampling algorithm bioprospector (Liu et al., 2001) to search for conserved motifs in the upstream region of the 64 Spo0A binding regions. Some of the Spo0A binding regions were inferred to contain more than one Spo0A-controlled transcription unit, bringing the total number of (non-overlapping) upstream sequences that were entered into the program to 69. We limited our search to 200 bp of upstream sequence, reasoning that binding sites for Spo0A should generally be located no further upstream than this distance from the gene under its control. In our analysis, we allowed for the possibility of multiple binding sites in an upstream region and in either orientation relative to the nearby gene. Because bioprospector only accepts a fixed motif width, we ran the program separately for motif widths ranging from 7 bp to 11 bp in length. The best five motifs found by bioprospector for each of the five motif widths were kept for the next step of the analysis, for a total of 25 possible motifs.

In the second step of the procedure, each of these bioprospector searches was optimized using an algorithm called biooptimizer that ‘cleans up’ (by adding or removing putative binding sites from the analysis) the bioprospector motif as well as allowing the motif width to vary. Out of the 25 optimized motifs, the one with the highest score (refer to Experimental procedures for details of the score) was selected as the ‘best’ Spo0A DNA-binding motif. Interestingly, this ‘best’ motif resulted from the optimization of four of the 25 different bioprospector motifs. A summary of the optimization results for this ‘best’ motif are given in Table 2. We see from the table that the motifs resulting from the optimization procedure converged on exactly the same predicted sites, consensus sequence and motif width despite the fact that each of the four bioprospector motifs differed in terms of the number of predicted sites, consensus sequence and motif width. The sequence logo for this ‘best’ motif is given in Fig. 2B, which conforms to the previously described consensus seven-nucleotide-long sequence but extends it by 5 bp (2 bp on the 5′ side and 3 bp on the 3′ side). The remaining 21 out of 25 optimized motifs were not exactly the same as this ‘best’ motif, but were quite similar. Figure 2A also shows a sequence logo derived from all previously known Spo0A binding sites, which extends the previous logo on the 5′ and 3′ sides, reinforcing the validity of the logo derived by bioprospector/biooptimizer.

Table 2. . Results of the optimization of Spo0A-binding motifs from bioprospector by biooptimizer.
bioprospector starting pointFinal optimization point
ConsensusMotif widthNumber of sitesConsensusMotif widthNumber of sites
Figure 2.

Spo0A consensus binding site.
A. The consensus binding sequence for Spo0A as derived from all previously known Spo0A binding sites (category I).
B. The consensus binding sequence for Spo0A as inferred by application of the bioprospector and biooptimizer programs to Spo0A-binding regions identified by ChIP-on-chip. The results are presented as sequence logos in which the height of the letters in bits is proportional to their frequency (Schneider and Stephens, 1990).

The bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure was not restricted to finding a motif site in every single upstream sequence and, in fact, the ‘best’ motif found had 51 predicted sites within the 70 upstream regions. In a third stage of our analysis, we scanned all the upstream sequences as well as 100 nucleotides of downstream sequence to identify in each case the best matches to the 12-nucleotide-long consensus matrix of the ‘best’ motif as identified by bioprospector/biooptimizer as well as matches to a matrix based on the seven mostly highly conserved positions. Because this procedure finds a potential site for every upstream sequence regardless of the site's strength, we also calculated a P-value that represented the significance of that site and included only sites with P-values < 0.1. The list of predicted sites from this scanning procedure is presented in Supplementary material (Table S1). The scanning procedure successfully identified at least one of the known Spo0A binding sites for the 10 genes in category I. It did not, however, detect all previously known sites and predicted some sites at which binding has not been observed. For comparison, in our previous study, bioprospector successfully identified 18 out of 24 experimentally verified promoters for RNA polymerase containing the sporulation transcription factor σE (Eichenberger et al., 2003). A high proportion of the sites predicted by bioprospector/biooptimizer were located upstream of the gene but, in a few cases, particularly for genes under the negative control of Spo0A (category III), predicted sites were located within the coding sequence (see the Supplementary material, Table S1).

Creating null mutations in newly identified members of the Spo0A regulon

In a final part of our analysis, we used a long flanking homology PCR strategy (Wach, 1996) to build null mutations in newly identified members of the Spo0A regulon and tested the resulting mutants for sporulation proficiency. Seven of the mutants proved to be of interest, and these fell into three groups: those that sporulated faster than the wild type, those that were mildly impaired in sporulation and one that was modestly impaired in sporulation.

Mutants of ykzF and med produced colonies that sporulated more rapidly than the wild type, the effect with the ykzF mutant being more pronounced than that for the med mutant. The ykzF gene, which has a binding site for Spo0A in vivo and is induced during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner, is of unknown function. The gene immediately downstream of ykzF is ykuL, which was also detected in the ChIP-on-chip and gel shift experiments (using a fragment of the ykuL upstream region that only included the 3′ end of the ykzF coding sequence). However, disruption of ykuL did not result in accelerated sporulation, indicating that ykzF alone is responsible for this phenotype. The med gene (Ogura et al., 1997), which is a binding site for Spo0A in vivo and is repressed in a Spo0A-dependent manner, is a positive regulator of comK, which encodes the principal transcriptional activator for genetic competence. Thus, repression of med might contribute to inhibition of competence gene expression during sporulation. Interestingly, comK is itself an in vivo binding site for Spo0A, although we detected no influence of Spo0A on comK expression. Conceivably, Spo0A contributes to the repression of comK during sporulation; if so, however, such an effect was not detected under the conditions of our analysis.

The second group consisted of four mutants that were mildly impaired in sporulation: rocG, yerB, yqxI and ywkC. When tested in liquid sporulation medium, the level of spore formation was reproducibly reduced by two- to threefold compared with the wild type. The case of ywkC is instructive as it shows the value of investigating the function of genes with mild sporulation phenotypes. A mutant of ywkC (renamed racA) had been built by Ben-Yehuda et al. (2003), who found that it encoded a protein with synthesis that is strongly induced in a Spo0A-dependent manner and which is responsible for remodelling sister chromosomes into an axial filament and for anchoring the chromosomes to the cell poles shortly after the onset of sporulation. A racA (ywkC) mutation causes a strong defect in chromosomal remodelling and anchoring but does not impair sporulation severely because spore formation is not strongly dependent upon axial filament formation. Like racA, yerB and yqxI are induced during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner (category II genes). Also like racA, yerB and yqxI exhibit little or no similarity to genes of known function. We infer from the effects of mutations in these genes that they contribute to efficient sporulation, but the nature of their gene products and their possible function in sporulation is unknown. Interestingly, yqxI is located within the skin element, a genetic element that is excised at a late stage of sporulation to create an intact coding sequence for the sporulation transcription factor σK. It has been shown that strains devoid of skin sporulate normally, but it is possible that a mild sporulation defect could have been overlooked. Another direct target of Spo0A, yqcG (category II), is also found in the skin element and in the vicinity of yqxI, but it is transcribed in the opposite direction. The inferred yqcG gene product exhibits some similarity to a transposase, and disruption of yqcG does not seem to affect sporulation efficiency significantly (S. Ben-Yehuda and R. Losick, unpublished results). In any event, whatever the role of yqxI during sporulation, it is evidently specific to B. subtilis because yqxI and the skin element itself are not found in most other endospore formers. In contrast, orthologues of racA are found in most Bacillus spp. but not in Clostridium spp., whereas yerB has orthologues in Bacillus halodurans and Ocaenobacillus iheyensis but not in Bacillus cereus or Bacillus anthracis. Finally, we come to the case of rocG. The rocG gene encodes the enzyme glutamate dehydrogenase, which is needed for efficient utilization of arginine, ornithine and proline as nitrogen or carbon sources (Belitsky and Sonenshein, 1999; 1998). Although rocG, which is a category IV gene, contains a binding site for Spo0A, no effect of Spo0A on rocG transcription was detected in our present study or in the investigation by Fawcett et al. (2000). Thus, the significance of the mild sporulation defect caused by a mutation in this gene is unclear, especially given the fact that rocG homologues are found in both endospore-forming and non-endospore-forming bacteria such as Listeria.

The last group is represented by the ycgM mutant, which was originally built and investigated by J. Silvaggi and P. Eichenberger (unpublished results). The ycgM mutant sporulated five- to 10-fold less efficiently than the wild type. The ycgM gene product is similar to proline oxidase. As pointed out to us by A. L. Sonenshein and B. Belitsky (personal communication), the effect of the ycgM mutation could result from the aberrant accumulation of a toxic compound, such as δ-pyrolline-5-carboxylate, which is generated during the breakdown and biosynthesis of proline and the breakdown of arginine. Interestingly, ycgM is conserved among Bacillus spp. and absent from Clostridium and Listeria.


Using a combination of three approaches, ChIP-on-chip analysis, transcriptional profiling and EMSAs, we have been able to assign 103 additional genes to the Spo0A regulon. With the 18 previously known members of the regulon, the tally is now 121 genes, which are organized as 30 single-gene units and 24 operons. Our analysis complements and extends that of Fawcett et al. (2000) who carried out transcriptional profiling during sporulation (as well as during growth using cells engineered to produce Spo0A-Sad-67) to identify genes with expression that is influenced by Spo0A∼P. The analysis of Fawcett et al. (2000) was based on arrays that were less complete than those that were available for the present study and also relied on a less sensitive protocol for detecting alterations in gene expression than the fluorescence-based method used here. Nonetheless, among the 18 transcription units in category II (that is previously uncharacterized transcription units that were associated with a binding site for Spo0A-Sad67 and with transcription that was stimulated during growth by Spo0A-Sad67), 13 [yxbC, skfA (ybcO), yttP, racA, yocH, yybN, sdpB (yvaX), yneE, ycgM, yqcG, yqxI, accA, ykzF; Fawcett et al., 2000] corresponded to transcription units that were induced during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner. Meanwhile, other data have confirmed that racA (Ben-Yehuda et al., 2003), sdpA (yvaW ), sdpB (yvaX ) and sdpC (yvaY ), which appear to constitute an operon (González-Pastor et al., 2003), and skfA (ybcO), skfB (ybcP ), skfC (ycbS ), skfD (ybcT ), skfE (ybdA), skfF (ybdB), skfG (ybdD ) and skfH (ybdE ), which also appear to constitute an operon, are induced during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner (González-Pastor et al., 2003). Thus, a high proportion of the genes assigned to the Spo0A regulon on the basis of harbouring a binding site for Spo0A-Sad67 and being induced by Spo0A-Sad67 during growth also meet the criterion of being expressed during sporulation in a Spo0A-dependent manner.

Also pertinent to our analysis are the transcriptional profiling experiments of Britton et al. (2002), who identified genes with transcription during sporulation that is dependent upon σH. Spo0A∼P acts in conjunction with both the σA-containing and σH-containing forms of RNA polymerase and, therefore, some of the newly identified genes in the Spo0A regulon would be expected to be under the direct control of σH. Also, σH-RNA polymerase stimulates the synthesis of Spo0A during sporulation by transcription from a σH-controlled promoter just upstream of the spo0A gene. Thus, many Spo0A-controlled genes are expected to be directly or indirectly dependent on σH for their transcription. Indeed, among the 18 transcription units in category II genes, 13 [yxbC, skfB (ybcP), yttP, racA, yocH, yybN, sdpA (yvaW ), yneE, yfmI, yqcG, yqxI, accD (yttI ) and ykuL] had previously been found to be transcribed during sporulation in a σH-dependent manner and, in two cases (yttP and racA), a putative σH-controlled promoter was found upstream of the gene. Therefore, of the 18 transcription units herein assigned to the Spo0A regulon, all but four (yjcM, yppD-yppE, yusE and yerB) had been found to be induced during sporulation in a Spo0A- or σH-dependent manner in the studies of Fawcett et al. (2000) or Britton et al. (2002).

Interestingly, a high proportion of category II genes either had little similarity to other genes in the databases or were similar to genes of unknown function. Recently, functions have been elucidated for several of the genes in category II, such as racA, which was discussed above (Ben-Yehuda et al., 2003). Likewise, the eight-cistron skfABCDEFGH (ybcOPST ybdABDE) operon has been shown to be responsible for the production of an antibiotic-like killer factor, and the three-cistron sdpABC (yvaWXY) operon has been shown to be responsible for the production of an exported signalling protein (González-Pastor et al., 2003). Mutations of both operons cause an accelerated sporulation phenotype, similar to that seen here for mutations of ykzF and med. The killing factor and signalling protein are part of a system that delays sporulation by killing cells that have not entered the pathway to sporulate. The dead cells release nutrients that allow cells with activated Spo0A to continue growing. It will be interesting to see whether ykzF and med participate in this unusual system of cannibalistic behaviour.

Other members of category II are known genes or resemble genes of known function. These are: the accD–accA operon, which encodes the beta and alpha subunits of acetyl-coenzyme A (CoA) carboxylase (an enzyme involved in long-chain fatty acid biosynthesis); yocH, the product of which is similar to a cell wall-binding protein; yfmI, the product of which is similar to a macrolide efflux transporter; yttP, the product of which is similar to a transcriptional regulator of the TetR/AcrR family; yqcG, the product of which is similar to a transposase; yjcM, the product of which is similar to an alcohol dehydrogenase, and ycgM, the product of which is similar to a proline oxidase. A mutant of ycgM was found to be impaired in sporulation but, as indicated in the Results, this phenotype is probably an indirect consequence of the accumulation of a toxic intermediate in amino acid catabolism. As noted above, many of the genes in category II are expressed during sporulation in a σH-dependent manner (Britton et al., 2002). Furthermore, some of the genes in category II appear to be functionally related to σH-controlled genes that are evidently not members of the Spo0A regulon. For example, the σH-controlled gene yojL, which is inferred to encode a cell wall-binding protein, is homologous to the Spo0A-activated gene yocH. Similarly, the σH-controlled genes yoeA and ywfF, which are thought to be involved in the export of toxic compounds, could act in parallel with the category II gene yfmI, the product of which is similar to a macrolide efflux transporter.

Most of the genes in category III, that is genes with transcription that was repressed by Spo0A-Sad67, are of known function and, in six cases, were described recently as being essential for growth of B. subtilis in LB medium (Kobayashi et al., 2003). Several of these genes are of particular interest. The product of the soj gene represses several genes that are activated by Spo0A∼P, including spo0A itself (Quisel and Grossman, 2000). Thus, by inhibiting transcription of soj, Spo0A∼P could contribute to a self-reinforcing cycle in which Spo0A stimulates its own synthesis. The product of divIVA is responsible for sequestering the cell division inhibitor, MinCD, to the cell poles during vegetative growth (Marston et al., 1998). Spo0A∼P-mediated inhibition of divIVA transcription could lead to reduced levels of DivIVA after the start of sporulation, contributing to the release of MinCD from the poles and facilitating the switch to polar division. By inhibiting the transcription of dnaA, dnaG, dnaN and holB, which encode the replication initiation protein DnaA, DNA primase and the β and δ′ subunits of the DNA polymerase III holoenzyme, respectively, Spo0A∼P could contribute to blocking new rounds of chromosome duplication after the start of sporulation. The 30 genes of the 26 kb fla–che operon encode most of the functions required for flagellum biosynthesis and chemotaxis (West et al., 2000). It is known that cells stop swimming shortly after they enter the pathway to sporulate, perhaps because of inhibition of transcription of the fla–che operon by Spo0A∼P.

Next, we comment on the anomalous case of the spore coat protein gene cotD, which was found to contain a Spo0A binding site and transcription of which in growing cells was found to be inhibited by Spo0A-Sad67 both in our present experiments and as reported previously (Fawcett et al., 2000). The promoter for cotD is under the control of the late-acting sporulation regulatory protein σK, which is absent in vegetative cells. Hence, transcription of cotD during growth is unexpected. Evidently, cotD is subject to a second mode of transcription during growth. If so, then repression by Spo0A∼P could serve to prevent inappropriate expression of the spore coat protein gene during early stages of sporulation. Also, repression of cotD by Spo0A∼P could serve to downregulate readthrough transcription into ypsA, which is located immediately downstream of cotD and was also found to be negatively regulated by Spo0A-Sad67. Gel electrophoretic mobility experiments revealed a Spo0A binding site located upstream of cotD but not upstream of ypsA, findings that are consistent with the idea that the influence of Spo0A-Sad67 on the transcription of both genes originates from a single Spo0A binding site upstream of cotD.

One gene in category IV deserves special mention. The spoIID gene was identified as a Spo0A binding site in both ChIP-on-chip analysis and electrophoretic mobility shift experiments, but no signal was detected for spoIID in our transcriptional profiling experiments. The spoIID gene is a mother cell-expressed gene and is known to be under the direct control of σE. Thus, we would not have expected it to be transcribed during growth in cells engineered to produce Spo0A-Sad67. What then is the physiological significance of a Spo0A binding site near spoIID? Recent work has shown that Spo0A∼P continues to accumulate after the initiation phase of sporulation, reaching high levels in the mother cell (Fujita and Losick, 2003). Perhaps Spo0A∼P helps to fine tune the σE-dependent expression of spoIID after polar septation.

We were also interested in determining how many of the Spo0A regulon members were conserved in other low-GC Gram-positive bacteria related to B. subtilis. Complete genome sequences are currently available for four other Bacilli, i.e. B. cereus (Ivanova et al., 2003), B. anthracis (Read et al., 2003), B. halodurans (Takami et al., 2000) and O. iheyensis (Takami et al., 2002), three Clostridium species, i.e. C. acetobutylicum (Nolling et al., 2001), C. perfringens (Shimizu et al., 2002) and C. tetani (Bruggemann et al., 2003) and two Listeria species, i.e. L monocytogenes and L. innocua (Glaser et al., 2001). Spo0A itself is conserved among the endospore-forming bacteria of the genera Bacillus and Clostridium but is absent from the closely related but non-endospore-forming genus Listeria. Thus, given the taxonomic proximity between Bacillus and Listeria, many Bacillus genes are expected to be conserved in Listeria with the exception of sporulation genes (unless they have a function in addition to sporulation). Conversely, sporulation genes should be more frequently conserved between Bacillus and Clostridium compared with other gene categories. We present the results of the comparative genomics analysis in Table 3. Strikingly, the majority of genes repressed by Spo0A, which are consequently expressed during vegetative growth and turned off during entry into sporulation, are widely conserved among the three genera, with many genes being conserved between Bacillus and Listeria. This high degree of conservation is also consistent with the presence of a significant number of essential genes in category III. On the other hand, genes activated by Spo0A are less widely conserved and clearly under-represented in Listeria. These genes are more likely to be directly involved in sporulation-related processes and are expected to be absent in non-endospore-forming bacteria. It may appear surprising that only a small number of genes activated by Spo0A in B. subtilis are found in Clostridium; however, this is consistent with the fact that initiation of sporulation in Clostridium appears to occur through a different pathway (one that apparently lacks a multicomponent phosphorelay) and under very different environmental conditions (Clostridia are anaerobes).

Table 3. Comparative genomics.
  Bacilli Listeria Clostridia
B. subtilis B. anthracis B. cereus B. halodurans O. iheyensis L. innocua L. monocytogenes C. acetobutylicum C. perfringens C. tetani
  • a

    . Orthologues were identified for Spo0A-controlled transcription units instead of genes, in order to avoid bias introduced by large operons (e.g. the fla/che operon, which contains 30 genes). When some but not all the genes in a given operon were conserved in other species, the operon was nevertheless considered to be orthologous to the corresponding B. subtilis transcription unit.

  • b

    . spo0A was not included in the table, but orthologues of spo0A are found in all the species represented in the table, except Listeria monocytogenes and Listeria innocua.

Orthologues to transcription unitsa activated by Spo0A in B. subtilis 2314141413 5 5 6 7 6
Orthologues to transcription units repressed by Spo0A in B. subtilis 30242424232121181515
Total orthologuesb 53383838362626242221

Finally, we comment on the size of the Spo0A regulon. Judging from our success in detecting essentially all genes previously known to be under the direct control of Spo0A, we believe that our current estimate for the size of the Spo0A regulon (121 genes, representing < 3% of the genes in the genome) is likely to represent a high proportion of the genes that are under the direct control of the master regulator for entry into sporulation. Meanwhile, previous work has shown that Spo0A influences the transcription of more than 500 genes during sporulation, representing over 10% of the genes in the genome. Evidently, and assuming that 121 genes is not a gross underestimate of the size of the regulon, Spo0A must exert its effect on many genes in an indirect manner. Indeed, many of the genes that are under the direct control of Spo0A are themselves involved in the regulation of gene expression, either directly, as in the cases of abrB, dnaA, sigF (spoIIAC), sigE (spoIIGB), sinR, rok, soj, fruR and sigD, or indirectly, as in the case of rapA, phrA, kinA, kinC, med, sinI, relA, spoIIAA, spoIIAB, spoIIE, spo0F, spo0J and sdpA (yvaW ), sdpB (yvaX ) and sdpC (yvaY ) (González-Pastor et al., 2003). In addition, the inferred product of yttP resembles members of the TetR/AcrR family of transcription regulators. Genes involved in the regulation of gene expression are also well represented in category IV (i.e. comQ, sigV, comK and yvyD). Spo0A is indeed a master regulator for sporulation, but much of its influence on the global pattern of gene expression is likely to be an indirect consequence of its effects on the synthesis of other regulatory proteins.

Experimental procedures

Chromatin immunoprecipitation microarray (ChIP-on-chip) experiments

An overnight culture of B. subtilis strain RL1104 (amyE::Pspac-spo0A-sad67 cat, spo0AΔerm) (Fawcett et al., 2000) on LB agar was used to inoculate a 50 ml culture in DS medium to give an initial OD600 of 0.05. Cross-linking with formaldehyde, extraction and shearing of DNA and immunoprecipitation generally followed the protocol of Quisel et al. (1999) with differences in details noted. When the cells grown at 37°C reached an OD600 of 0.3–0.4, the induction of Pspac-spo0A-sad67 was accomplished by adding IPTG at a final concentration of 1 mM. At times T0.5 (30 min) and T1 (1 h) after induction (the end of exponential growth), the cultures were treated with formaldehyde (1% final concentration) and NaPO4 (10 mM final concentration) for 30 min. Glycine was added to 125 mM final concentration, and the cultures were incubated for an additional 5 min. Cells were washed twice with 40 ml of phosphate-buffered saline (PBS; pH 7.3) (Ausubel et al., 1990), resuspended in 1 ml of IP buffer (50 mM Tris-HCl, pH 8.0, 150 mM NaCl, 0.5% Triton X-100) supplemented with 50 µl of 1× protease inhibitor cocktail (Roche) and 10 mg of lysozyme and incubated at 37°C for 20 min. DNA in the lysate was sheared by sonication (Branson 250 microtip sonicator) to give an average fragment size of 300–1000 bp. Ten microlitres of the supernatant fluid of subsequent centrifugation was removed and saved for later analysis (‘total DNA’). The remainder of the supernatant fluid was precleared by incubation with 1/10th volume of 50% protein A–Sepharose slurry (Sigma) for 1 h at 4°C. After centrifugation, Spo0A and Spo0A–DNA complexes in the supernatant fluid were immunoprecipitated overnight at 4°C using rabbit antibody to Spo0A, followed by incubation with 50 µl of a 50% Protein A–Sepharose slurry (1 h, 4°C). Complexes were washed four times (15 min each) with 1 ml of IP buffer. The slurry was resuspended in 150 µl of elution buffer (50 mM Tris-HCl, pH 8.0, 10 mM EDTA, 1% SDS). The 10 µl total DNA sample was mixed with 150 µl of elution buffer. To reverse formaldehyde-induced cross-links, the immunoprecipitated and total DNA samples were incubated at 65°C overnight. Supernatants were collected and treated at 37°C for 2 h with 150 µl of TE buffer containing glycogen (0.27 mg ml−1) and proteinase K (100 µg ml−1). The DNA was purified by phenol–chloroform extraction, precipitated with isopropanol and washed with 70% ethanol. Immunoprecipitated DNA was resuspended in 25 µl of TE, and the total DNA sample was resuspended in 100 µl of TE.

PCR amplification of DNA, differential fluorescent labelling, hybridization to microarrays and array scanning were done according to the protocols at The arrays were spotted with 4074 PCR products corresponding to B. subtilis ORFs as well as with four Escherichia coli genes as negative controls (Britton et al., 2002). The hybridization results were scanned using a GenePix 4000B scanner (Axon Instruments) and analysed with genepix 3.0 software (Axon Instruments) (Britton et al., 2002). The entire procedure was carried out four independent times at T0.5 and T1, and the results were averaged. The enrichment factor for a given gene was calculated as the ratio of hybridization of immunoprecipitated DNA to total DNA, normalized using resolver software (Rosetta).

Growth of cells and extraction of RNA for microarray analysis

Cultures of strain RL1104 harbouring Pspac-spo0A-sad67 were grown in LB medium at 37°C to an OD600 of 0.3–0.4, at which time the cultures were split in two, and spo0A was induced by the addition of 1 mM IPTG to one of the cultures. Samples of cells for RNA extraction were taken 30 and 60 min after induction with IPTG, pelleted and frozen immediately in liquid N2, and were compared with the same time points in the parallel cultures without IPTG. RNA was harvested from each culture and prepared for hybridization as described by Britton et al. (2002). The entire procedure was carried out four independent times for T0.5 and T1, and the results were averaged. The microarrays used came from the same set as those used in ChIP-on-chip experiments.

Gel mobility shift assays

DNA fragments used in this assay correspond to the region 250 bp upstream of the start codon and were amplified by PCR. The 5′ ends of DNA were labelled using [γ-32P]-ATP and T4 polynucleotide kinase. A typical assay mixture contained in 20 µl: 10 mM Tris-HCl, pH 7.5, 50 mM NaCl, 1 mM EDTA, 1 mM dithiothreitol (DTT), 5% (v/v) glycerol, 0.5 µg of BSA, radioactive DNA probe (2000 c.p.m. ml−1) and various amounts of the purified DNA-binding domain of Spo0A protein (Rowe-Magnus and Spiegelman, 1998). After 30 min of incubation at room temperature, 20 µl of this mixture was loaded onto a native 4% (w/v) polyacrylamide TBE Ready Gel (Bio-Rad) and electrophoresed in 1× TBE buffer for 1 h at 100 V cm−1. Radioactive species were detected by autoradiography after exposure to Kodak X-OMAT film at −70°C.

Purification of the DNA-binding domain of Spo0A protein

A DNA fragment encoding the C-terminal, DNA-binding domain of Spo0A (codons 143–267; Rowe-Magnus et al., 1998) was amplified by PCR from chromosomal DNA of PY79 using oligonucleotides (5′-TACATATGAGCAGCCAGC CTGAACC-3′ and 5′-TGCTCGAGTTATTTAAGGTTTTGAA-3′) that introduced a NdeI site at the 5′ end and a XhoI site at the 3′ end. The fragment was cloned into pET21b, thereby generating an extension of six histidine codons at the 3′ end of the gene (pMF14). Expression and purification of protein was performed as described previously (Fujita and Losick, 2003).


Our bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure was designed to find the set of sites in the upstream sequences of the 69 genes identified in the ChIP-on-chip analysis that best fitted the Bayesian model for binding motifs (Lawrence et al., 1993; Liu, 1994; Liu et al., 1995; reviewed by Jensen et al., 2004). If we represent the sequence data as S, then the best fit of the model is the set of motif start sites A and motif width w that gives the maximum posterior density p(A,w |S). As long as prior information is vague, maximizing the posterior density is equivalent to maximum likelihood estimation. We took the logarithm of this posterior distribution and called this our scoring function ψ(A,w) = log p(A,w |S), so that our goal was then to maximize the scoring function, or score, ψ. This maximization was accomplished by a simple optimization algorithm. Given an initial configuration of sites, A, we systematically scanned through every position of every sequence in the data set and decided whether to add this position to A as the start of a motif site or to remove it from A if it was already in A. If we denote A′ as A with this change made, then we accept the change only if ψ(A′,w) > ψ(A,w). Similarly, after each scan through every position, we considered all possible changes in w to either w′ = w + 1 or w′ = w – 1 and in either ends of the motif and selected the one that increased the score, i.e. ψ(A,w′  ) > ψ(A,w). As this is a deterministic strategy, it was important that we started the algorithm in a configuration A that is already close to the maximum, for which we used the program bioprospector (Liu et al., 2001). bioprospector is a stochastic implementation of the motif model, which gives it more flexibility to find good motif signals, although it is not designed to find an optimal motif signal, nor will exactly the same motif signals be found in independent runs of the program. The program is also restricted to a fixed motif width w. Therefore, we used a combined procedure for finding these unknown motif sites, first using bioprospector to find putative Spo0A binding sites, and then the optimization algorithm described previously (which we have named biooptimizer) to ‘clean up’ the motif signal via the possible addition of new sites or the removal of current sites, as well as allowing changes in motif width w in order to find the optimal motif width.

Having found an optimal motif with this combined bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure, we implemented an additional scanning procedure to find more potential Spo0A sites. Using the optimal motif estimates inline image (the estimated proportion of nucleotide k in position j of the motif) and background estimates inline image (the estimated proportion of nucleotide k in the background) provided by the bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure, we scanned all upstream (and 100 bp downstream) sequences to see whether there were additional sites that matched the motif model closely but were not strong enough to be detected by the bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure. In each sequence, for each potential starting position i, we had a potential site, Si = (ri,ri +1,…,ri +w−1), for which we computed the following score:


Only positions in each sequence with large Strength values are considered as potential additional sites. However, for any additional sites found by the scanning procedure, one must be cautious about the strength of these sites, as each position will have a Strength value regardless of how well a site starting at that position fitted the motif model. Therefore, we also calculated a P-value for each position by comparing the Strength calculated for that position with the best Strength value found in each of 50 000 random sequences. The P-value of each potential site was then calculated as the proportion of these 50 000 random sequences that had the best Strength values that were larger than the Strength value calculated for the potential site. Only potential sites with low P-values (<0.10) were considered as additional sites. If a sequence already contained a site found by our bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure, we would expect that this same site would be found by the upstream scanning procedure. We performed this scanning procedure twice, first using the optimal 12 bp motif found by our bioprospector/biooptimizer procedure, and then again using our optimal 12 bp motif with the first two and last three columns removed, giving us a reduced 7 bp motif that represented the most highly conserved positions (TGTCGAA).


We thank J. Silvaggi, S. Ben-Yehuda, A. Goranov and A. Grossman for sharing unpublished results, A. L. Sonenshein and B. Belistsky for advice on the interpretation of the ycgM mutant, and S. Ben-Yehuda, P. Fawcett and A. L. Sonenshein for advice on the manuscript. V.M. was a fellow of the European Molecular Biology Organization. P.E. was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and a Merck Core Educational Support Program. This work was supported by a NIH grant GM18568 to R.L. and NSF grant DMS-0204674 to J.L.

Supplementary material

The following material is available from

Table S1 . Binding sequences for Spo0A as inferred by scanning are listed in columns D, G and J.