Hypophosphite was used as a toxic analogue to identify genes whose products have a putative function in the transport of formate. Two Tn10-derived insertion mutants were identified that exhibited increased resistance to high concentrations of hypophosphite in the culture medium. The transposon was located in the identical position in the focA (formate channel; previously termed orf) gene of the pfl operon in both mutants. A defined chromosomal focA nonsense mutant, which showed minimal polarity effects on pfl gene expression, had the same phenotype as the insertion mutants. Results obtained using a hycA-lacZ fusion to monitor changes in the intracellular formate concentration in a focA mutant indicated that the level of formate inside the cell was elevated compared with the wild type. Moreover, it could be shown that there was a corresponding reduction of approximately 50% in the amount of formate excreted by a focA mutant into the culture medium. Taken together, these results indicate that formate accumulates in anaerobic ceils which do not have a functional focA gene product and that one function of FocA may be to export formate from the cell. A further significant result was that hypophosphite could substitute for formate in activating hycA gene expression. This hypophosphite-dependent activation of hycA gene expression was reduced 10-fold in a focA null mutant, suggesting that hypophosphite must first enter the cell before it can act as a signal to activate hycA expression. By analogy, these data suggest that FocA may also be functional in the import of formate into anaerobic Escherichia coli cells.
Site-specific mutagenesis identified the translation initiation codon of focA as a GUG. Therefore, the FocA polypeptide has a molecular weight of 30958. FocA shows significant similarity at both the primary and secondary structural levels with the NirC protein of E. coli and the FdhC protein of Methanobacterium formicicum. All three proteins are predicted to be integral membrane proteins. A detailed in vivo TnphoA mutagenesis study predicted that FocA has six membrane-spanning segments.