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Bacteria that colonize animals must overcome, or coexist, with the reactive oxygen species products of inflammation, a front-line defense of innate immunity. Among these is the neutrophilic oxidant bleach, hypochlorous acid (HOCl), a potent antimicrobial that plays a primary role in killing bacteria through nonspecific oxidation of proteins, lipids, and DNA. Here, we report that in response to increasing HOCl levels, Escherichia coli regulates biofilm production via activation of the diguanylate cyclase DgcZ. We identify the mechanism of DgcZ sensing of HOCl to be direct oxidation of its regulatory chemoreceptor zinc-binding (CZB) domain. Dissection of CZB signal transduction reveals that oxidation of the conserved zinc-binding cysteine controls CZB Zn2+ occupancy, which in turn regulates the catalysis of c-di-GMP by the associated GGDEF domain. We find DgcZ-dependent biofilm formation and HOCl sensing to be regulated in vivo by the conserved zinc-coordinating cysteine. Additionally, point mutants that mimic oxidized CZB states increase total biofilm. A survey of bacterial genomes reveals that many pathogenic bacteria that manipulate host inflammation as part of their colonization strategy possess CZB-regulated diguanylate cyclases and chemoreceptors. Our findings suggest that CZB domains are zinc-sensitive regulators that allow host-associated bacteria to perceive host inflammation through reactivity with HOCl. IMPORTANCE Immune cells are well equipped to eliminate invading bacteria, and one of their primary tools is the synthesis of bleach, hypochlorous acid (HOCl), the same chemical used as a household disinfectant. In this work, we present findings showing that many host-associated bacteria possess a bleach-sensing protein that allows them to adapt to the presence of this chemical in their environment. We find that the bacterium Escherichia coli responds to bleach by hunkering down and producing a sticky matrix known as biofilm, which helps it aggregate and adhere to surfaces. This behavior may play an important role in pathogenicity for E. coli and other bacteria, as it allows the bacteria to detect and adapt to the weapons of the host immune system.


This article was originally published in mBio, volume 12, issue 3, in 2021.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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