Solans L, Aguiló N, Samper S, Pawlik A, Frigui W, Martín C, Brosch R, Gonzalo-Asensio J
The ESX-1 secreted virulence factor ESAT-6 is one of the major and most well-studied virulence factors of Mycobacterium tuberculosis given that its inactivation severely attenuates virulent mycobacteria. In this work we show that clinical isolates of M. tuberculosis produce and secrete higher amounts of ESAT-6 than the widely used M. tuberculosis H37Rv laboratory strain. A search for the genetic polymorphisms underlying this observation showed that whiB6 (rv3862c), a gene upstream of the ESX-1 genetic locus that has not previously been found to be implicated in the regulation of ESX-1 secretory apparatus, presents a unique single nucleotide insertion in its promoter region in strains H37Rv and H37Ra. This polymorphism is not present in any of the other publically available M. tuberculosis complex genomes or in any of the 76 clinical M. tuberculosis isolates analyzed in our laboratory. We demonstrate that in consequence, the virulence master regulator PhoP down-regulates whiB6 expression in H37Rv while it up-regulates its expression in clinical strains. Importantly, reintroduction of the wild-type (WT) copy of whiB6 in H37Rv restored ESAT-6 production and secretion to the level of clinical strains. Hence, we provide clear evidence that in M. tuberculosis - with the exception of the H37Rv strain - ESX-1 expression is regulated by WhiB6 as part of the PhoP regulon, which adds another level of complexity to the regulation of ESAT-6 secretion with a potential role in virulence adaptation.