In our genome-wide screens for small RNAs, we found that a number of short RNAs actually encode small proteins. The correct annotation of the smallest proteins is one of the biggest challenges of genome annotation, and perhaps more importantly, few annotated short ORFs have been confirmed to correspond to synthesized proteins. Although these proteins have largely been missed, the few small proteins that have been studied in detail in bacterial and mammalian cells have been shown to have important functions in signaling and in cellular defenses. We thus established a project to identify and characterize E. coli proteins of less than 50 amino acids. We used sequence conservation and ribosome binding site models to predict genes encoding small proteins, defined as having 16-50 amino acids, in the intergenic regions of the Escherichia coli genome. We tested expression of these predicted as well as previously annotated small proteins by integrating the sequential peptide affinity tag directly upstream of the stop codon on the chromosome and assaying for synthesis using immunoblot assays. This approach confirmed that 20 previously annotated and 18 newly discovered proteins of 16-50 amino acids are synthesized. Studies to detect the synthesis of other predicted small proteins identified by the genome-wide mapping of ribosome binding sites (ribosome profiling) are ongoing. Remarkably more than half of the newly discovered proteins are predicted to be single transmembrane proteins. This observation prompted us to examine the localization, topology, and membrane insertion of the small proteins. Biochemical fractionation showed that, consistent with the predicted transmembrane helix, the small proteins generally are most abundant in the inner membrane fraction. Examples of both Nin-Cout and Nout-Cin orientations as well as dual topology were found in assays of topology-reporter fusions to representative small transmembrane proteins. Positive residues close to the transmembrane domains are conserved, and mutational analysis of one small protein, YohP showed that the positive inside rule applies for single transmembrane domain proteins as has been observed for larger proteins. Finally, fractionation analysis of small protein localization in strains depleted of the Sec or YidC membrane insertion pathways uncovered differential requirements. Some small proteins appear to be affected by both Sec and YidC depletion, others showed more dependence on one or the other insertion pathway, while one protein was not affected by depletion of either Sec or YidC. Thus, despite their diminutive size, small proteins display considerable diversity in topology, biochemical features, and insertion pathways. We now are employing many of the approaches the group has used to characterize the functions of small regulatory RNAs to elucidate the functions of the small proteins. Systematic assays for the accumulation of tagged versions of the proteins have shown that many small proteins accumulate under specific growth conditions or after exposure to stress. We also generated and screened bar-coded null mutants and identified small proteins required for resistance to cell envelope stress and acid shock. In addition, the attached sequential peptide affinity tag is being exploited to identify co-purifying complexes. The combination of these approaches is giving insights into when, where and how the small proteins are acting. We recently showed that expression of a 42-amino acid protein, now denoted MntS (formerly the small RNA gene rybA) is repressed by high levels of manganese through MntR. Overproduction of MntS causes manganese sensitivity, while a lack of MntS perturbs proper manganese-dependent repression of another manganese regulated gene. Based on these results we propose that MntS plays a novel role in intra-cellular manganese trafficking and homeostasis. We also found the 49-amino acid inner membrane protein AcrZ (formerly named YbhT), associates with the AcrAB-TolC multidrug efflux pump, which confers resistance to a wide variety of antibiotics and other compounds in Escherichia coli. Co-purification of AcrZ with AcrB, in the absence of both AcrA and TolC, two-hybrid assays and suppressor mutations indicate this interaction occurs through the inner membrane protein AcrB. The highly-conserved acrZ gene is co-regulated with acrAB through induction by the MarA, Rob and SoxS transcription regulators. Mutants lacking AcrZ are sensitive to many, but not all, of the antibiotics transported by AcrAB-TolC. This differential antibiotic sensitivity suggests that AcrZ may enhance the ability of the AcrAB-TolC pump to export certain classes of substrates. This work together with our studies of other small proteins suggest that many are acting as regulators of larger protein complexes.

Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Zip Code
Storz, Gisela (2016) New perspectives: Insights into oxidative stress from bacterial studies. Arch Biochem Biophys 595:25-7
Martin, Julia E; Waters, Lauren S; Storz, Gisela et al. (2015) The Escherichia coli small protein MntS and exporter MntP optimize the intracellular concentration of manganese. PLoS Genet 11:e1004977
Ramamurthi, Kumaran S; Storz, Gisela (2014) The small protein floodgates are opening; now the functional analysis begins. BMC Biol 12:96
Fontaine, Fanette; Fuchs, Ryan T; Storz, Gisela (2011) Membrane localization of small proteins in Escherichia coli. J Biol Chem 286:32464-74
Hemm, Matthew R; Paul, Brian J; Miranda-Rios, Juan et al. (2010) Small stress response proteins in Escherichia coli: proteins missed by classical proteomic studies. J Bacteriol 192:46-58
Hobbs, Errett C; Astarita, Jillian L; Storz, Gisela (2010) Small RNAs and small proteins involved in resistance to cell envelope stress and acid shock in Escherichia coli: analysis of a bar-coded mutant collection. J Bacteriol 192:59-67
Fozo, Elizabeth M; Hemm, Matthew R; Storz, Gisela (2008) Small toxic proteins and the antisense RNAs that repress them. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev 72:579-89, Table of Contents
Hemm, Matthew R; Paul, Brian J; Schneider, Thomas D et al. (2008) Small membrane proteins found by comparative genomics and ribosome binding site models. Mol Microbiol 70:1487-501