PLoS Pathog. 2021 Mar 1;17(3):e1009338. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1009338. Online ahead of print.
Host defense proteins (HDPs), aka defensins, are a key part of the innate immune system that functions by inserting into the bacterial membranes to form pores to kill invading and colonizing microorganisms. To ensure survival, microorganism such as S. aureus has developed survival strategies to sense and respond to HDPs. One key strategy in S. aureus is a two-component system (TCS) called GraRS coupled to an efflux pump that consists of a membrane permease VraG and an ATPase VraF, analogous to the BceRS-BceAB system of Bacillus subtilis but with distinct differences. While the 9 negatively charged amino acid extracellular loop of the membrane sensor GraS has been shown to be involved in sensing, the major question is how such a small loop can sense diverse HDPs. Mutation analysis in this study divulged that the vraG mutant phenocopied the graS mutant with respect to reduced activation of downstream effector mprF, reduction in surface positive charge and enhanced 2 hr. killing with LL-37 as compared with the parental MRSA strain JE2. In silico analysis revealed VraG contains a single 200-residue extracellular loop (EL) situated between the 7th and 8th transmembrane segments (out of 10). Remarkably, deletion of EL in VraG enhanced mprF expression, augmented surface positive charge and improved survival in LL-37 vs. parent JE2. As the EL of VraG is rich in lysine residues (16%), in contrast to a preponderance of negatively charged aspartic acid residues (3 out of 9) in the EL of GraS, we divulged the role of charge interaction by showing that K380 in the EL of VraG is an important residue that likely interacts with GraS to interfere with GraS-mediated signaling. Bacterial two-hybrid analysis also supported the interaction of EL of VraG with the EL of GraS. Collectively, we demonstrated an interesting facet of efflux pumps whereby the membrane permease disrupts HDP signaling by inhibiting GraS sensing that involves charged residues in the EL of VraG.