The cold-water-fish pathogen Vibrio salmonicida expresses a functional bacterial luciferase but produces insufficient levels of its aliphatic-aldehyde substrate to be detectably luminous in culture. Our goals were to (i) better explain this cryptic bioluminescence phenotype through molecular characterization of the lux operon and (ii) test whether the bioluminescence gene cluster is associated with virulence. Cloning and sequencing of the V. salmonicida lux operon revealed that homologs of all of the genes required for luminescence are present: luxAB (luciferase) and luxCDE (aliphatic-aldehyde synthesis). The arrangement and sequence of these structural lux genes are conserved compared to those in related species of luminous bacteria. However, V. salmonicida strains have a novel arrangement and number of homologs of the luxR and luxI quorum-sensing regulatory genes. Reverse transcriptase PCR analysis suggests that this novel arrangement of quorum-sensing genes generates antisense transcripts that may be responsible for the reduced production of bioluminescence. In addition, infection with a strain in which the luxA gene was mutated resulted in a marked delay in mortality among Atlantic salmon relative to infection with the wild-type parent in single-strain challenge experiments. In mixed-strain competition between the luxA mutant and the wild type, the mutant was attenuated up to 50-fold. It remains unclear whether the attenuation results from a direct loss of luciferase or a polar disturbance elsewhere in the lux operon. Nevertheless, these findings document for the first time an association between a mutation in a structural lux gene and virulence, as well as provide a new molecular system to study Vibrio pathogenesis in a natural host.
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