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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Geisel School of Medicine


In mammalian cells, programmed cell death (PCD) plays important roles in development, in the removal of damaged cells, and in fighting bacterial infections. Although widespread among multicellular organisms, there are relatively few documented instances of PCD in bacteria. Here we describe a potential PCD pathway in Pseudomonas aeruginosa that enhances the ability of the bacterium to cause disease in a lung infection model. Activation of the system can occur in a subset of cells in response to DNA damage through cleavage of an essential transcription regulator we call AlpR. Cleavage of AlpR triggers a cell lysis program through de-repression of the alpA gene, which encodes a positive regulator that activates expression of the alpBCDE lysis cassette. Although this is lethal to the individual cell in which it occurs, we find it benefits the population as a whole during infection of a mammalian host. Thus, host and pathogen each may use PCD as a survival-promoting strategy. We suggest that activation of the Alp cell lysis pathway is a disease-enhancing response to bacterial DNA damage inflicted by the host immune system.