But how did a single species of bacteria come to terms with such different hosts?
Working in the UW-Madison laboratory of microbiologist Ned Ruby, Mandel and his colleagues scoured the genomes of the two different strains of V. fischeri and found that most of the bacterium's genetic architecture was conserved over the course of millions of years of evolutionary history, but with a key difference: The strain that colonizes the squid has a regulatory gene that controls other genes that lay down a biofilm that allows the microbe to colonize the animal's light organ.
"During squid colonization, this regulatory gene turns on a suite of genes that allow bacteria to colonize the squid through mucus produced by the animal," Mandel explains. "The mucus is the pathway to the light organ, but it also helps keep out the bad guys."
Both strains of bacteria, Mandel explains, have the same genes that produce the biofilms the bacterium needs to get established in its host. But the regulatory gene that sets the other biofilm genes in motion is absent in the strain that lives in the pinecone fish, the animal scientists believe was first colonized by V. fischeri before it moved in to the squid light organ when the squid family came onto the scene in the Pacific Ocean at least 30 million years ago.
"The regulatory gene entered the bacterium's lineage and allowed it to expand its host range into the squid," according to Mandel. "The bottom-line message of the paper is that bacteria can shift host range by modifying their capabilities with small regulatory changes."
The regulatory gene acquired by the bacterium, notes Ruby, is essentially a switch the organism uses to activate a set of genes that had been residing quietly in the V. fischeri genome. Such mechanisms, he says, are very likely at play in many other species of bacteria, including those that infect humans and cause illness.
"This is going to inform a qu
|Contact: Mark J. Mandel|
University of Wisconsin-Madison