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Summary

ICEMlSymR7A of Mesorhizobium loti is an integrative and conjugative element (ICE) that confers the ability to form a nitrogen-fixing symbiosis with Lotus species. Horizontal transfer is activated by TraR and N-acyl-homoserine lactone (AHL), which can stimulate ICE excision in 100% of cells. However, in wild-type cultures, the ICE is excised at low frequency. Here we show that QseM, a widely conserved ICE-encoded protein, is an antiactivator of TraR. Mutation of qseM resulted in TraR-dependent activation of AHL production and excision, but did not affect transcription of traR. QseM and TraR directly interacted in a bacterial two-hybrid assay in the presence of AHL. qseM expression was repressed by a DNA-binding protein QseC, which also activated qseC expression from a leaderless transcript. QseC differentially bound two adjacent operator sites, the lower affinity of which overlapped the −35 regions of the divergent qseC-qseM promoters. QseC homologues were identified on ICEs, TraR/TraM-regulated plasmids and restriction-modification cassettes, suggesting a conserved mode of regulation. Six QseC variants with distinct operators were identified that showed evidence of reassortment between mobile elements. We propose that QseC and QseM comprise a bimodal switch that restricts quorum sensing and ICEMlSymR7A transfer to a small proportion of cells in the population.