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S. aureus is a highly successful pathogen that is speculated to be the most common cause of human disease. The progression of disease in S. aureus is subject to multi-factorial regulation, in response to the environments encountered during growth. This adaptive nature is thought to be central to pathogenesis, and is the result of multiple regulatory mechanisms employed in gene regulation. In this work we describe the existence of a novel S. aureus regulator, an as yet uncharacterized ECF-sigma factor (sigma(S)), that appears to be an important component of the stress and pathogenic responses of this organism. Using biochemical approaches we have shown that sigma(S) is able to associates with core-RNAP, and initiate transcription from its own coding region. Using a mutant strain we determined that sigma(S) is important for S. aureus survival during starvation, extended exposure to elevated growth temperatures, and Triton X-100 induced lysis. Coculture studies reveal that a sigma(S) mutant is significantly outcompeted by its parental strain, which is only exacerbated during prolonged growth (7 days), or in the presence of stressor compounds. Interestingly, transcriptional analysis determined that under standard conditions, S. aureus SH1000 does not initiate expression of sigS. Assays performed hourly for 72h revealed expression in typically background ranges. Analysis of a potential anti-sigma factor, encoded downstream of sigS, revealed it to have no obvious role in the upregulation of sigS expression. Using a murine model of septic arthritis, sigS-mutant infected animals lost significantly less weight, developed septic arthritis at significantly lower levels, and had increased survival rates. Studies of mounted immune responses reveal that sigS-mutant infected animals had significantly lower levels of IL-6, indicating only a weak immunological response. Finally, strains of S. aureus lacking sigS were far less able to undergo systemic dissemination, as determined by bacterial loads in the kidneys of infected animals. These results establish that sigma(S) is an important component in S. aureus fitness, and in its adaptation to stress. Additionally it appears to have a significant role in its pathogenic nature, and likely represents a key component in the S. aureus regulatory network.

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PLOS One, v. 3, no. 12, e3844.