A novel initiation mechanism of death in Streptococcus pneumoniae induced by the human milk protein-lipid complex HAMLET and activated during physiological death

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To cause colonization or infection, most bacteria grow in biofilms where differentiation and death of subpopulations is critical for optimal survival of the whole population. However, little is known about initiation of bacterial death under physiological conditions. Membrane depolarization has been suggested, but never shown to be involved, due to the difficulty of performing such studies in bacteria and the paucity of information that exists regarding ion transport mechanisms in prokaryotes. In this study, we performed the first extensive investigation of ion transport and membrane depolarization in a bacterial system. We found that HAMLET, a human milk protein-lipid complex, kills Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus) in a manner that shares features with activation of physiological death from starvation. Addition of HAMLET to pneumococci dissipated membrane polarity, but depolarization per se was not enough to trigger death. Rather, both HAMLET- and starvation-induced death of pneumococci specifically required a sodium-dependent calcium influx, as shown using calcium and sodium transport inhibitors. This mechanism was verified under low sodium conditions, and in the presence of ionomycin or monensin, which enhanced pneumococcal sensitivity to HAMLET- and starvation-induced death. Pneumococcal death was also inhibited by kinase inhibitors, and indicated the involvement of Ser/Thr kinases in these processes. The importance of this activation mechanism was made evident, as dysregulation and manipulation of physiological death was detrimental to biofilm formation, a hallmark of bacterial colonization. Overall, our findings provide novel information on the role of ion transport during bacterial death, with the potential to uncover future antimicrobial targets.


External organisations
  • University at Buffalo
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Infectious Medicine


  • Biofilms, Calcium, Cell Death, Humans, Lipids, Milk Proteins, Milk, Human, Sodium, Streptococcus pneumoniae
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27168-82
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number32
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Aug 3
Publication categoryResearch