Natural strain variation reveals diverse biofilm regulation in squid-colonizing Vibrio fischeri

Ella R. Rotman, Katherine M. Bultman, John F. Brooks, Mattias C. Gyllborg, Hector L. Burgos, Michael S. Wollenberg, Mark J. Mandel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The mutualistic symbiont Vibrio fischeri builds a symbiotic biofilm during colonization of squid hosts. Regulation of the exopolysaccharide component, termed Syp, has been examined in strain ES114, where production is controlled by a phosphorelay that includes the inner membrane hybrid histidine kinase RscS. Most strains that lack RscS or encode divergent RscS proteins cannot colonize a squid host unless RscS from a squid symbiont is heterologously expressed. In this study, we examine V. fischeri isolates worldwide to understand the landscape of biofilm regulation during beneficial colonization. We provide a detailed study of three distinct evolutionary groups of V. fischeri and find that while the RscS-Syp biofilm pathway is required in one of the groups, two other groups of squid symbionts require Syp independent of RscS. Mediterranean squid symbionts, including V. fischeri SR5, colonize without an RscS homolog encoded by their genome. Additionally, group A V. fischeri strains, which form a tightly related clade of Hawaii isolates, have a frameshift in rscS and do not require the gene for squid colonization or competitive fitness. These same strains have a frameshift in sypE, and we provide evidence that this group A sypE allele leads to an upregulation in biofilm activity. Thus, this work describes the central importance of Syp biofilm in colonization of diverse isolates and demonstrates that significant evolutionary transitions correspond to regulatory changes in the syp pathway. IMPORTANCE Biofilms are surface-associated, matrix-encased bacterial aggregates that exhibit enhanced protection to antimicrobial agents. Previous work has established the importance of biofilm formation by a strain of luminous Vibrio fischeri bacteria as the bacteria colonize their host, the Hawaiian bobtail squid. In this study, expansion of this work to many natural isolates revealed that biofilm genes are universally required, yet there has been a shuffling of the regulators of those genes. This work provides evidence that even when bacterial behaviors are conserved, dynamic regulation of those behaviors can underlie evolution of the host colonization phenotype. Furthermore, this work emphasizes the importance of investigating natural diversity as we seek to understand molecular mechanisms in bacteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00033-19
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology
  • Microbiology


  • Aliivibrio fischeri
  • BinK
  • Biofilm
  • Phosphorelay
  • RscS
  • Vibrio fischeri


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