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. Thus we 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. 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 were found in assays of topology-reporter fusions to representative small transmembrane proteins. Interestingly however, three of nine tested proteins display dual topology. 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. For example, we have recently shown that expression of a 42-amino acid protein, now denoted MntS (formerly the small RNA gene rybA) is repressed by 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.

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Wang, Hanbo; Yin, Xuefeng; Wu Orr, Mona et al. (2017) Increasing intracellular magnesium levels with the 31-amino acid MgtS protein. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114:5689-5694
Raina, Medha; Storz, Gisela (2017) SgrT, a Small Protein That Packs a Sweet Punch. J Bacteriol 199:
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
Storz, Gisela; Wolf, Yuri I; Ramamurthi, Kumaran S (2014) Small proteins can no longer be ignored. Annu Rev Biochem 83:753-77
Ramamurthi, Kumaran S; Storz, Gisela (2014) The small protein floodgates are opening; now the functional analysis begins. BMC Biol 12:96
Hobbs, Errett C; Fontaine, Fanette; Yin, Xuefeng et al. (2011) An expanding universe of small proteins. Curr Opin Microbiol 14:167-73
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

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