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Open Access Research article

Yersinia pestis insecticidal-like toxin complex (Tc) family proteins: characterization of expression, subcellular localization, and potential role in infection of the flea vector

Justin L Spinner1*, Clayton O Jarrett1, Doris L LaRock2, Samuel I Miller23, Carleen M Collins2 and B Joseph Hinnebusch1

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Zoonotic Pathogens, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH, Hamilton, MT, 59840, USA

2 Department of Microbiology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA

3 Department of Genome Sciences, Immunology, and Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2012, 12:296  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-12-296

Published: 18 December 2012

Abstract

Background

Toxin complex (Tc) family proteins were first identified as insecticidal toxins in Photorhabdus luminescens and have since been found in a wide range of bacteria. The genome of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of bubonic plague, contains a locus that encodes the Tc protein homologues YitA, YitB, YitC, and YipA and YipB. Previous microarray data indicate that the Tc genes are highly upregulated by Y. pestis while in the flea vector; however, their role in the infection of fleas and pathogenesis in the mammalian host is unclear.

Results

We show that the Tc proteins YitA and YipA are highly produced by Y. pestis while in the flea but not during growth in brain heart infusion (BHI) broth at the same temperature. Over-production of the LysR-type regulator YitR from an exogenous plasmid increased YitA and YipA synthesis in broth culture. The increase in production of YitA and YipA correlated with the yitR copy number and was temperature-dependent. Although highly synthesized in fleas, deletion of the Tc proteins did not alter survival of Y. pestis in the flea or prevent blockage of the proventriculus. Furthermore, YipA was found to undergo post-translational processing and YipA and YitA are localized to the outer membrane of Y. pestis. YitA was also detected by immunofluorescence microscopy on the surface of Y. pestis. Both YitA and YipA are produced maximally at low temperature but persist for several hours after transfer to 37°C.

Conclusions

Y. pestis Tc proteins are highly expressed in the flea but are not essential for Y. pestis to stably infect or produce a transmissible infection in the flea. However, YitA and YipA localize to the outer membrane and YitA is exposed on the surface, indicating that at least YitA is present on the surface when Y. pestis is transmitted into the mammalian host from the flea.

Keywords:
Yersinia pestis; Toxin complex proteins; YitA; YipA; YitR; Xenopsylla cheopis