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cis-Acting elements that control expression of the master virulence regulatory gene atxA in Bacillus anthracis

Dale, JL;Raynor, MJ;Dwivedi, P;Koehler, TM;

Transcription of the Bacillus anthracis structural genes for the anthrax toxin proteins and biosynthetic operon for capsule is positively regulated by AtxA, a transcription regulator with unique properties. Consistent with the role of atxA in virulence factor expression, a B. anthracis atxA-null mutant is avirulent in a murine model for anthrax. In culture, multiple signals impact atxA transcript levels, and the timing and steady-state level of atxA expression are critical for optimal toxin and capsule synthesis. Despite the apparent complex control of atxA transcription, only one trans-acting protein, the transition state regulator AbrB, has been demonstrated to interact directly with the atxA promoter. Here we employ 5′ and 3′ deletion analysis and site-directed mutagenesis of the atxA control region to demonstrate that atxA transcription from the major start site P1 is dependent upon a consensus sequence for the housekeeping sigma factor SigA and an A+T-rich upstream element for RNA polymerase. We also show that an additional trans-acting protein(s) binds specifically to atxA promoter sequences located between -13 and +36 relative to P1 and negatively impacts transcription. Deletion of this region increases promoter activity up to 15-fold. Site-directed mutagenesis of a 9-bp palindromic sequence within the region prevents binding of the trans-acting protein(s), increasing promoter activity 7-fold and resulting in a corresponding increase in AtxA and anthrax toxin production. Notably, an atxA promoter mutant that produced elevated levels of AtxA and toxin proteins during culture was unaffected for virulence in a murine model for anthrax.