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Title: The antibiotic action of methylarsenite is an emergent property of microbial communities

Arsenic is the most ubiquitous environmental toxin. Here, we demonstrate that bacteria have evolved the ability to use arsenic to gain a competitive advantage over other bacteria at least twice. Microbes generate toxic methylarsenite (MAs(III)) by methylation of arsenite (As(III)) or reduction of methylarsenate (MAs(V)). MAs(III) is oxidized aerobically to MAs(V), making methylation a detoxification process. MAs(V) is continually re‐reduced to MAs(III) by other community members, giving them a competitive advantage over sensitive bacteria. Because generation of a sustained pool of MAs(III) requires microbial communities, these complex interactions are an emergent property. We show that reduction of MAs(V) byBurkholderiasp. MR1 produces toxic MAs(III) that inhibits growth ofEscherichia coliin mixed culture. There are three microbial mechanisms for resistance to MAs(III). ArsH oxidizes MAs(III) to MAs(V). ArsI degrades MAs(III) to As(III). ArsP confers resistance by efflux. Cells ofE. coliexpressingarsI,arsHorarsPgrow in mixed culture withBurkholderiasp. MR1 in the presence of MAs(V). Thus MAs(III) has antibiotic properties: a toxic organic compound produced by one microbe to kill off competitors. Our results demonstrate that life has adapted to use environmental arsenic as a weapon in the continuing battle for dominance.

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Journal Name:
Molecular Microbiology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 487-494
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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