Open Access Research article

The ColRS signal transduction system responds to the excess of external zinc, iron, manganese, and cadmium

Kadi Ainsaar, Karl Mumm, Heili Ilves and Rita Hõrak*

Author Affiliations

Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Tartu, 51010 Tartu, Estonia

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BMC Microbiology 2014, 14:162  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-14-162

Published: 20 June 2014



The ColRS two-component system has been shown to contribute to the membrane functionality and stress tolerance of Pseudomonas putida as well as to the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa and plant pathogenic Xanthomonas species. However, the conditions activating the ColRS pathway and the signal(s) sensed by ColS have remained unknown. Here we aimed to analyze the role of the ColRS system in metal tolerance of P. putida and to test whether ColS can respond to metal excess.


We show that the ColRS system is necessary for P. putida to tolerate the excess of iron and zinc, and that it also contributes to manganese and cadmium tolerance. Excess of iron, zinc, manganese or cadmium activates ColRS signaling and as a result modifies the expression of ColR-regulated genes. Our data suggest that the genes in the ColR regulon are functionally redundant, as several loci have to be deleted to observe a significant decrease in metal tolerance. Site-directed mutagenesis of ColS revealed that excess of iron and, surprisingly, also zinc are sensed by a conserved ExxE motif in ColS’s periplasmic domain. While ColS is able to sense different metals, it still discriminates between the two oxidation states of iron, specifically responding to ferric and not ferrous iron. We propose a signal perception model involving a dimeric ColS, where each monomer donates one ExxE motif for metal binding.


Several transition metals are essential for living organisms in certain amounts, but toxic in excess. We show that ColRS is a sensor system which detects and responds to the excess of physiologically important metals such as zinc, iron and manganese. Thus, the ColRS system is an important factor for metal homeostasis and tolerance in P. putida.

ColRS two-component system; Metal tolerance; Histidine kinase; Signal perception; Pseudomonas putida