Phenol-Soluble Modulins Modulate Persister Cell Formation in Staphylococcus aureus

Mara Baldry, Martin S Bojer, Zahra Najarzadeh, Martin Vestergaard, Rikke Louise Meyer, Daniel Erik Otzen, Hanne Ingmer

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Staphylococcus aureus is a human pathogen that can cause chronic and recurrent infections and is recalcitrant to antibiotic chemotherapy. This trait is partly attributed to its ability to form persister cells, which are subpopulations of cells that are tolerant to lethal concentrations of antibiotics. Recently, we showed that the phenol-soluble modulins (PSMs) expressed by S. aureus reduce persister cell formation. PSMs are a versatile group of toxins that, in addition to toxicity, form amyloid-like fibrils thought to support biofilm structures. Here, we examined individual or combined synthetic PSMα peptides and their equivalent amyloid-like fibrils on ciprofloxacin-selected S. aureus persister cells. We found that PSMα2 and the mixture of all four alpha peptides consistently were able to reduce persister frequency in all growth phases, and this activity was specifically linked to the presence of the soluble peptide as no effect was seen with fibrillated peptides. Persister reduction was particularly striking in a mutant that, due to mutations in the Krebs cycle, has enhanced ability to form persisters with PSMα4 and the combination of peptides being most effective. In biofilms, only the combination of peptides displayed persister reducing activity. Collectively, we report the individual contributions of PSMα peptides to persister cell reduction and that the combination of peptides generally was most effective. Strikingly, the fibrillated peptides lost activity and thus, if formed in bacterial cultures, they will be inactive against persister cells. Further studies will be needed to address the biological role of phenol-soluble modulins in reducing persister cells.

Original languageEnglish
Article number573253
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • PSM
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • accessory gene regulator
  • agr
  • biofilm
  • fibrils
  • persister cells
  • phenol-soluble modulins


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