Biofilm formation is a conserved strategy for long-term bacterial survival in nature and during infections. Biofilms are multicellular aggregates of cells enmeshed in an extracellular matrix. The RetS, GacS and LadS sensors control the switch from a planktonic to a biofilm mode of growth in Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Here we detail our approach to identify environmental triggers of biofilm formation by investigating environmental conditions that repress expression of the biofilm repressor RetS. Mg2+ limitation repressed the expression of retS leading to increased aggregation, exopolysaccharide (EPS) production and biofilm formation. Repression of retS expression under Mg2+ limitation corresponded with induced expression of the GacA-controlled small regulatory RNAs rsmZ and rsmY and the EPS biosynthesis operons pel and psl. We recently demonstrated that extracellular DNA sequesters Mg2+ cations and activates the cation-sensing PhoPQ two-component system, which leads to increased antimicrobial peptide resistance in biofilms. Here we show that exogenous DNA and EDTA, through their ability to chelate Mg2+, promoted biofilm formation. The repression of retS in low Mg2+ was directly controlled by PhoPQ. PhoP also directly controlled expression of rsmZ but not rsmY suggesting that PhoPQ controls the equilibrium of the small regulatory RNAs and thus fine-tunes the expression of genes in the RetS pathway. In summary, Mg2+ limitation is a biologically relevant environmental condition and the first bonafide environmental signal identified that results in transcriptional repression of retS and promotes P. aeruginosa biofilm formation
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