Despite the identification of many genes and pathways involved in the persistence phenomenon of bacteria, the mechanisms of persistence are not well understood. Here, using Escherichia coli as a model, we identified polynucleotide phosphorylase (PNPase) as a key regulator in persister formation. We successfully constructed pnp knockout mutant strain and its complemented strain, and exposed the pnp knockout mutant and complemented strain to antibiotics and stress conditions. The results showed that, compared with the wild-type W3110, the pnp knockout strain had defect in persistence to antibiotics and stress conditions, and the persistence to antibiotics and stresses was restored upon complementation. RNA-Seq was performed to identify the transcriptome profile in the pnp knockout strain compared with wild-type strain W3110, and the data revealed that 242 (166 up-regulated, and 76 down-regulated) genes were differentially expressed in the pnp knockout mutant strain. KEGG pathway analysis of the up-regulated genes showed that they were mostly mapped to metabolism and virulence pathways, most of which are positively regulated by the global regulator cyclic AMP receptor protein (CRP). Similarly, the transcription level of the crp gene in the pnp-deletion strain increased 3.22-fold in the early stationary phase. We further explored the indicators of cellular metabolism of the pnp-deletion strain, the persistence phenotype of the pnp and crp double-deletion mutant, and the transcriptional activity of crp gene. Our results indicate that PNPase controls cellular metabolism by negatively regulating the crp operon at the post-transcriptional level by targeting the 5- Untranslated Region (UTR) of the crp transcript. This study offers new insight about the persister mechanisms and provides new targets for development of new drugs against persisters for more effective treatment of persistent bacterial infections.
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