Functional metagenomic analysis of soil metagenomes is a method for uncovering as-yet unidentified mechanisms for antibiotic resistance. Here we report an unconventional mode by which a response regulator derived from a soil metagenome confers resistance to the β-lactam antibiotic carbenicillin in Escherichia coli. A recombinant clone (βlr16) harboring a 5,169 bp DNA insert was selected from a metagenomic library previously constructed from a remote Alaskan soil. The βlr16 clone conferred specific resistance to carbenicillin, with limited increases in resistance to other tested antibiotics, including other β-lactams (penicillins and cephalosporins), rifampin, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, chloramphenicol, nalidixic acid, fusidic acid, and gentamicin. Resistance was more pronounced at 24°C than at 37°C. Zone-of-inhibition assays suggested that the mechanism of carbenicillin resistance was not due to antibiotic inactivation. The DNA insert did not encode any genes known to confer antibiotic resistance, but did have two putative open reading frames (ORFs) that were annotated as a metallopeptidase and a two-component response regulator. Transposon mutagenesis and subcloning of the two ORFs followed by phenotypic assays showed that the response regulator gene was necessary and sufficient to confer the resistance phenotype. Quantitative reverse transcriptase PCR showed that the response regulator suppressed expression of the ompF porin gene, independently of the small RNA regulator micF, and enhanced expression of the acrD, mdtA, and mdtB efflux pump genes. This work demonstrates that antibiotic resistance can be achieved by the modulation of gene regulation by heterologous DNA. Functional analyses such as these can be important for making discoveries in antibiotic resistance gene biology and ecology.

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Published in PLOS One, v. 10, no. 3, article e0120094, p. 1-13.

This is an open access article, free of all copyright, and may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, built upon, or otherwise used by anyone for any lawful purpose. The work is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication.

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This work was funded in part by grants from United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (2011-67020-30195) and the National Research Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (WIS01312) to LAM. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.