During host injury, Pseudomonas aeruginosa can be cued to express a lethal phenotype within the intestinal tract reservoir—a hostile, nutrient scarce environment depleted of inorganic phosphate. Here we determined if phosphate depletion activates a lethal phenotype in P. aeruginosa during intestinal colonization. To test this, we allowed Caenorhabditis elegans to feed on lawns of P. aeruginosa PAO1 grown on high and low phosphate media. Phosphate depletion caused PAO1 to kill 60% of nematodes whereas no worms died on high phosphate media. Unexpectedly, intense redness was observed in digestive tubes of worms before death. Using a combination of transcriptome analyses, mutants, and reporter constructs, we identified 3 global virulence systems that were involved in the “red death” response of P. aeruginosa during phosphate depletion; they included phosphate signaling (PhoB), the MvfR–PQS pathway of quorum sensing, and the pyoverdin iron acquisition system. Activation of all 3 systems was required to form a red colored PQS+Fe3+ complex which conferred a lethal phenotype in this model. When pyoverdin production was inhibited in P. aeruginosa by providing excess iron, red death was attenuated in C. elegans and mortality was decreased in mice intestinally inoculated with P. aeruginosa. Introduction of the red colored PQS+Fe3+ complex into the digestive tube of C. elegans or mouse intestine caused mortality associated with epithelial disruption and apoptosis. In summary, red death in C. elegans reveals a triangulated response between PhoB, MvfR–PQS, and pyoverdin in response to phosphate depletion that activates a lethal phenotype in P. aeruginosa
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