To hunt or to rest: prey depletion induces a novel starvation survival strategy in bacterial predators


The small size of bacterial cells necessitates rapid adaption to sudden environmental changes. In Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, an obligate predator of bacteria common in oligotrophic environments, the non-replicative, highly motile attack phase (AP) cell must invade a prey to ensure replication. AP cells swim fast and respire at high rates, rapidly consuming their own contents. How the predator survives in the absence of prey is unknown. We show that starvation for prey significantly alters swimming patterns and causes exponential decay in prey-searching cells over hours, until population-wide swim-arrest. Swim-arrest is accompanied by changes in energy metabolism, enabling rapid swim-reactivation upon introduction of prey or nutrients, and a sweeping change in gene expression and gene regulation that largely differs from those of the paradigmatic stationary phase. Swim-arrest is costly as it imposes a fitness penalty in the form of delayed growth. We track the control of the swim arrest-reactivation process to cyclic-di-GMP (CdG) effectors, including two motility brakes. CRISPRi transcriptional inactivation, and in situ localization of the brakes to the cell pole, demonstrated their essential role for effective survival under prey-induced starvation. Thus, obligate predators evolved a unique CdG-controlled survival strategy, enabling them to sustain their uncommon lifestyle under fluctuating prey supply.

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Fig. 1: Changes in motility of B. bacteriovorus with time under starvation, and after adding prey.
Fig. 2: Changes in the motility of B. bacteriovorus HD100 aAP2 cells exposed to various elicitors.
Fig. 3: Comparative transcriptomic analysis of B. bacteriovorus HD100 motility-arrested attack phase cells (aAP2) and fresh attack phase cells (AP1).
Fig. 4: Changes in expression levels of cyclic-di-GMP (CdG) signaling-related genes in B. bacteriovorus HD100.
Fig. 5: Changes in motility and predation dynamics in B. bacteriovorus HD100 silenced for break proteins expression.
Fig. 6: Transcriptional changes in sigma factors in B. bacteriovorus HD100 motility-arrested attack phase cells (aAP2) compared to fresh attack phase cells (AP1).
Fig. 7: The life cycle of the periplasmic predator Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus (left).


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This research was supported by the Korea–Israel Cooperative Scientific Research, budget number 3-14168, and by the U.S. Army Research Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was accomplished under Cooperative Agreement Number W911NF-15-2-0036 to DEK, EJ, and AH. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Army Research Office, DARPA, or the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Government purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation hereon. We would like to thank Menyat Elsayed for her help with the paper.

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Sathyamoorthy, R., Kushmaro, Y., Rotem, O. et al. To hunt or to rest: prey depletion induces a novel starvation survival strategy in bacterial predators. ISME J (2020).

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