Two Different rpf Clusters Distributed among a Population of Stenotrophomonas maltophilia Clinical Strains Display Differential Diffusible Signal Factor Production and Virulence Regulation
The quorum-sensing (QS) system present in the emerging nosocomial pathogen Stenotrophomonas maltophilia is based on the signaling molecule diffusible signal factor (DSF). Production and detection of DSF are governed by the rpf cluster, which encodes the synthase RpfF and the sensor RpfC, among other components. Despite a well-studied system, little is known about its implication in virulence regulation in S. maltophilia. Here, we have analyzed the rpfF gene from 82 S. maltophilia clinical isolates. Although rpfF was found to be present in all of the strains, it showed substantial variation, with two populations (rpfF-1 and rpfF-2) clearly distinguishable by the N-terminal region of the protein. Analysis of rpfC in seven complete genome sequences revealed a corresponding variability in the N-terminal transmembrane domain of its product, suggesting that each RpfF variant has an associated RpfC variant. We show that only RpfC-RpfF-1 variant strains display detectable DSF production. Heterologous rpfF complementation of Delta rpfF mutants of a representative strain of each variant suggests that RpfF-2 is, however, functional and that the observed DSF-deficient phenotype of RpfC-RpfF-2 variant strains is due to permanent repression of RpfF-2 by RpfC-2. This is corroborated by the Delta rpfC mutant of the RpfC-RpfF-2 representative strain. In line with this observations, deletion of rpfF from the RpfC-RpfF-1 strain leads to an increase in biofilm formation, a decrease in swarming motility, and relative attenuation in the Caenorhabditis elegans and zebrafish infection models, whereas deletion of the same gene from the representative RpfC-RpfF-2 strain has no significant effect on these virulence-related phenotypes.