Znu is the predominant zinc importer in Yersinia pestis during in vitro growth but is not essential for virulence.
Little is known about Zn homeostasis in Yersinia pestis, the plague bacillus. The Znu ABC transporter is essential for zinc (Zn) uptake and virulence in a number of bacterial pathogens. Bioinformatics analysis identified ZnuABC as the only apparent high-affinity Zn uptake system in Y. pestis. Mutation of znuACB caused a growth defect in Chelex-100-treated PMH2 growth medium, which was alleviated by supplementation with submicromolar concentrations of Zn. Use of transcriptional reporters confirmed that Zur mediated Zn-dependent repression and that it can repress gene expression in response to Zn even in the absence of Znu. Virulence testing in mouse models of bubonic and pneumonic plague found only a modest increase in survival in low-dose infections by the znuACB mutant. Previous studies of cluster 9 (C9) transporters suggested that Yfe, a well-characterized C9 importer for manganese (Mn) and iron in Y. pestis, might function as a second, high-affinity Zn uptake system. Isothermal titration calorimetry revealed that YfeA, the solute-binding protein component of Yfe, binds Mn and Zn with comparably high affinities (dissociation constants of 17.8 ± 4.4 nM and 6.6 ± 1.2 nM, respectively), although the complete Yfe transporter could not compensate for the loss of Znu in in vitro growth studies. Unexpectedly, overexpression of Yfe interfered with the znu mutant's ability to grow in low concentrations of Zn, while excess Zn interfered with the ability of Yfe to import iron at low concentrations; these results suggest that YfeA can bind Zn in the bacterial cell but that Yfe is incompetent for transport of the metal. In addition to Yfe, we have now eliminated MntH, FetMP, Efe, Feo, a substrate-binding protein, and a putative nickel transporter as the unidentified, secondary Zn transporter in Y. pestis. Unlike other bacterial pathogens, Y. pestis does not require Znu for high-level infectivity and virulence; instead, it appears to possess a novel class of transporter, which can satisfy the bacterium's Zn requirements under in vivo metal-limiting conditions. Our studies also underscore the need for bacterial cells to balance binding and transporter specificities within the periplasm in order to maintain transition metal homeostasis.
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