Ribosomal frameshifting and dual-target antiactivation restrict quorum-sensing-activated transfer of a mobile genetic element
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Symbiosis islands are integrative and conjugative mobile genetic elements that convert nonsymbiotic rhizobia into nitrogen-fixing symbionts of leguminous plants. Excision of the Mesorhizobium loti symbiosis island ICEMlSymR7A is indirectly activated by quorum sensing through TraR-dependent activation of the excisionase gene rdfS. Here we show that a +1 programmed ribosomal frameshift (PRF) fuses the coding sequences of two TraR-activated genes, msi172 and msi171, producing an activator of rdfS expression named Frameshifted excision activator (FseA). Mass-spectrometry and mutational analyses indicated that the PRF occurred through +1 slippage of the tRNAphe from UUU to UUC within a conserved msi172-encoded motif. FseA activated rdfS expression in the absence of ICEMlSymR7A, suggesting that it directly activated rdfS transcription, despite being unrelated to any characterized DNA-binding proteins. Bacterial two-hybrid and gene-reporter assays demonstrated that FseA was also bound and inhibited by the ICEMlSymR7A-encoded quorum-sensing antiactivator QseM. Thus, activation of ICEMlSymR7A excision is counteracted by TraR antiactivation, ribosomal frameshifting, and FseA antiactivation. This robust suppression likely dampens the inherent biological noise present in the quorum-sensing autoinduction circuit and ensures that ICEMlSymR7A transfer only occurs in a subpopulation of cells in which both qseM expression is repressed and FseA is translated. The architecture of the ICEMlSymR7A transfer regulatory system provides an example of how a set of modular components have assembled through evolution to form a robust genetic toggle that regulates gene transcription and translation at both single-cell and cell-population levels.
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