Sublancin 168 is a highly potent and stable antimicrobial peptide secreted by the Gram-positive bacterium Bacillus subtilis. Production of sublancin gives B. subtilis a major competitive growth advantage over a range of other bacteria thriving in the same ecological niches, the soil and plant rhizosphere. B. subtilis protects itself against sublancin by producing the cognate immunity protein SunI. Previous studies have shown that both the sunA gene for sublancin and the sunI immunity gene are encoded by the prophage SPβ. The sunA gene is under control of several transcriptional regulators. Here we describe the mechanisms by which sunA is heterogeneously expressed within a population, while the sunI gene encoding the immunity protein is homogeneously expressed. The key determinants in heterogeneous sunA expression are the transcriptional regulators Spo0A, AbrB and Rok. Interestingly, these regulators have only a minor influence on sunI expression and they have no effect on the homogeneous expression of sunI within a population of growing cells. Altogether, our findings imply that the homogeneous expression of sunI allows even cells that are not producing sublancin to protect themselves at all times from the active sublancin produced at high levels by their isogenic neighbors. This suggests a mutualistic evolutionary strategy entertained by the SPβ prophage and its Bacillus host, ensuring both stable prophage maintenance and a maximal competitive advantage for the host at minimal costs.
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