The Phenylacetic Acid Catabolic Pathway Regulates Antibiotic and Oxidative Stress Responses in Acinetobacter

Anna J. Hooppaw, Jenna C. McGuffey, Gisela Di Venanzio, Juan C. Ortiz-Marquez, Brent S. Weber, Tasia Joy Lightly, Tim van Opijnen, Nichollas E. Scott, Silvia T. Cardona, Mario F. Feldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The opportunistic pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii is responsible for a wide range of infections that are becoming increasingly difficult to treat due to extremely high rates of multidrug resistance. Acinetobacter’s pathogenic potential is thought to rely on a “persist and resist” strategy that facilitates its remarkable ability to survive under a variety of harsh conditions. The paa operon is involved in the catabolism of phenylacetic acid (PAA), an intermediate in phenylalanine degradation, and is the most differentially regulated pathway under many environmental conditions. We found that, under subinhibitory concentrations of antibiotics, A. baumannii upregulates expression of the paa operon while simultaneously repressing chaperone-usher Csu pilus expression and biofilm formation. These phenotypes are reverted either by exogenous addition of PAA and its nonmetabolizable derivative 4-fluoro-PAA or by a mutation that blocks PAA degradation. Interference with PAA degradation increases susceptibility to antibiotics and hydrogen peroxide treatment. Transcriptomic and proteomic analyses identified a subset of genes and proteins whose expression is affected by addition of PAA or disruption of the paa pathway. Finally, we demonstrated that blocking PAA catabolism results in attenuated virulence in a murine catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI) model. We conclude that the paa operon is part of a regulatory network that responds to antibiotic and oxidative stress and is important for virulence. PAA has known regulatory functions in plants, and our experiments suggest that PAA is a cross-kingdom signaling molecule. Interference with this pathway may lead, in the future, to novel therapeutic strategies against A. baumannii infections.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • KEYWORDS Acinetobacter
  • antibiotics
  • gene regulation
  • phenylacetic acid
  • stress response


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