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Bacterial resistance to arsenic protects against protist killing

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Protists kill their bacterial prey using toxic metals such as copper. Here we hypothesize that the metalloid arsenic has a similar role. To test this hypothesis, we examined intracellular survival of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum (D. discoideum). Deletion of the E. coli ars operon led to significantly lower intracellular survival compared to wild type E. coli. This suggests that protists use arsenic to poison bacterial cells in the phagosome, similar to their use of copper. In response to copper and arsenic poisoning by protists, there is selection for acquisition of arsenic and copper resistance genes in the bacterial prey to avoid killing. In agreement with this hypothesis, both copper and arsenic resistance determinants are widespread in many bacterial taxa and environments, and they are often found together on plasmids. A role for heavy metals and arsenic in the ancient predator–prey relationship between protists and bacteria could explain the widespread presence of metal resistance determinants in pristine environments.

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This Project was financially supported by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDB15020402, XDB15020302), the International Postdoctoral Exchange Fellowship Program (No. 20150079), the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agriculture and Spatial Planning (FORMAS), and the Centre for Sea and Society at University of Gothenburg. BPR was supported by National Institutes of Health Grants GM55425 and ES023779. Authors would like to thank Twasol Research Excellence Program (TRE Program), King Saud University, Saudi Arabia for support.

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Correspondence to Yong-Guan Zhu or Christopher Rensing.

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The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Xiuli Hao, Xuanji Li and Chandan Pal have contributed equally.

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Hao, X., Li, X., Pal, C. et al. Bacterial resistance to arsenic protects against protist killing. Biometals 30, 307–311 (2017).

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