The transcription factor DksA exerts opposing effects on cell division depending on the presence of ppGpp

Sarah E. Anderson, Stephen E. Vadia, Jane McKelvy, Petra Anne Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bacterial cell size is a multifactorial trait that is influenced by variables including nutritional availability and the timing of cell division. Prior work revealed a negative correlation between concentration of the alarmone (p)ppGpp (ppGpp) and cell length in Escherichia coli, suggesting that ppGpp may promote assembly of the division machinery (divisome) and cytokinesis in this organism. To clarify this counterintuitive connection between a starvation-induced stress response effector and cell proliferation, we undertook a systematic analysis of growth and division in E. coli cells defective in ppGpp synthesis and/or engineered to overproduce the alarmone. Our data indicate that ppGpp acts indirectly on divisome assembly through its role as a global mediator of transcription. Loss of either ppGpp (ppGpp0) or the ppGpp-associated transcription factor DksA led to increased average length, with ppGpp0 mutants also exhibiting a high frequency of extremely long filamentous cells. Using heat-sensitive division mutants and fluorescently labeled division proteins, we confirmed that ppGpp and DksA are cell division activators. We found that ppGpp and DksA regulate division through their effects on transcription, although the lack of known division genes or regulators in available transcriptomics data strongly suggests that this regulation is indirect. We also found that DksA inhibits division in ppGpp0 cells, contrary to its role in a wild-type background. We propose that the ability of ppGpp to switch DksA from a division inhibitor to a division activator helps tune cell length across different concentrations of ppGpp. IMPORTANCE Cell division is a key step in the bacterial lifecycle that must be appropriately regulated to ensure survival. This work identifies the alarmone (p)ppGpp (ppGpp) as a general regulator of cell division, extending our understanding of the role of ppGpp beyond a signal for starvation and other stress. Even in nutrient-replete conditions, basal levels of ppGpp are essential for division to occur appropriately and for cell size to be maintained. This study establishes ppGpp as a “switch” that controls whether the transcription factor DksA behaves as a division activator or inhibitor. This unexpected finding enhances our understanding of the complex regulatory mechanisms employed by bacteria to coordinate division with diverse aspects of cell growth and stress response. Because division is an essential process, a better understanding of the mechanisms governing the assembly and activation of the division machinery could contribute to the development of novel therapeutics to treat bacterial infections.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Cell division
  • stringent response
  • transcription factors


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