The contribution of specific factors to bacterial virulence is generally investigated through creation of genetic "knockouts" that are then compared to wild-type strains or complemented mutants. This paradigm is useful to understand the effect of presence vs. absence of a specific gene product but cannot account for concentration-dependent effects, such as may occur with some bacterial toxins. In order to assess threshold and dose-response effects of virulence factors, robust systems for tunable expression are required. Recent evidence suggests that the folding free energy (ΔG) of the 5' end of mRNA transcripts can have a significant effect on translation efficiency and overall protein abundance. Here we demonstrate that rational alteration of 5' mRNA folding free energy by introduction of synonymous mutations allows for predictable changes in pneumolysin (PLY) expression by Streptococcus pneumoniae without the need for chemical inducers or heterologous promoters. We created a panel of isogenic S. pneumoniae strains, differing only in synonymous (silent) mutations at the 5' end of the PLY mRNA that are predicted to alter ΔG. Such manipulation allows rheostat-like control of PLY production and alters the cytotoxicity of whole S. pneumoniae on primary and immortalized human cells. These studies provide proof-ofprinciple for further investigation of mRNA ΔG manipulation as a tool in studies of bacterial pathogenesis.
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