Intercellular communication by means of small signal molecules coordinates gene expression among bacteria. This population density-dependent regulation is known as quorum sensing. The symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti Rm1021 possesses the Sin quorum sensing system based on N-acyl homoserine lactones (AHL) as signal molecules. Here, we demonstrate that the LuxR-type regulator ExpR binds specifically to a target sequence in the sinRI locus in the presence of different AHLs with acyl side chains from 8 to 20 carbons. Dynamic force spectroscopy based on the atomic force microscope provided detailed information about the molecular mechanism of binding upon activation by six different AHLs. These single molecule experiments revealed that the mean lifetime of the bound protein-DNA complex varies depending on the specific effector molecule. The small differences between individual AHLs also had a pronounced influence on the structure of protein-DNA interaction: The reaction length of dissociation varied from 2.6 to 5.8 A? . In addition, dynamic force spectroscopy experiments indicate that N-heptanoyl-DL-homoserine lactone binds to ExpR but is not able to stimulate protein-DNA interaction.
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