The Salmonella enterica opvAB operon is a horizontally-acquired locus that undergoes phase variation under Dam methylation control. The OpvA and OpvB proteins form intertwining ribbons in the inner membrane. Synthesis of OpvA and OpvB alters lipopolysaccharide O-antigen chain length and confers resistance to bacteriophages 9NA (Siphoviridae), Det7 (Myoviridae), and P22 (Podoviridae). These phages use the O-antigen as receptor. Because opvAB undergoes phase variation, S. enterica cultures contain subpopulations of opvAB OFF and opvAB ON cells. In the presence of a bacteriophage that uses the O-antigen as receptor, the opvAB OFF subpopulation is killed and the opvAB ON subpopulation is selected. Acquisition of phage resistance by phase variation of O-antigen chain length requires a payoff: opvAB expression reduces Salmonella virulence. However, phase variation permits resuscitation of the opvAB OFF subpopulation as soon as phage challenge ceases. Phenotypic heterogeneity generated by opvAB phase variation thus preadapts Salmonella to survive phage challenge with a fitness cost that is transient only.
A tradeoff can increase the adaptive capacity of an organism at the expense of lowering the fitness conferred by specific traits. This study describes a tradeoff that confers bacteriophage resistance in Salmonella enterica at the expense of reducing its pathogenic capacity. Phase variation of the opvAB operon creates two subpopulations of bacterial cells, each with a distinct lipopolysaccharide structure. One subpopulation is large and virulent but sensitive to phages that use the lipopolysaccharide O-antigen as receptor, while the other is small and avirulent but phage resistant. In the presence of a phage that targets the O-antigen, only the avirulent subpopulation survives. However, phase variation permits resuscitation of the virulent opvAB OFF subpopulation as soon as phage challenge ceases. This transient tradeoff may illustrate the adaptive value of epigenetic mechanisms that generate bacterial subpopulations in a reversible manner.