mSystems 7(1) , e01092-21 ( 2022)
Methylation of specific DNA sequences is ubiquitous in bacteria and has known roles in immunity and regulation of cellular processes, such as the cell cycle. Here, we explored DNA methylation in bacteria of the genus Ensifer, including its potential role in regulating terminal differentiation during nitrogen-fixing symbiosis with legumes. Using single-molecule real-time sequencing, six genome-wide methylated motifs were identified across four Ensifer strains, five of which were strain-specific. Only the GANTC motif, recognized by the cell cycle-regulated CcrM methyltransferase, was methylated in all strains. In actively dividing cell cultures, methylation of GANTC motifs increased progressively from the ori to ter regions in each replicon, in agreement with a cell cycle-dependent regulation of CcrM. In contrast, there was near full genome-wide GANTC methylation in the early stage of symbiotic differentiation. This was followed by a moderate decrease in the overall extent of methylation and a progressive decrease in chromosomal GANTC methylation from the ori to ter regions in later stages of differentiation. Based on these observations, we suggest that CcrM activity is dysregulated and constitutive during terminal differentiation, which we hypothesize is a driving factor for endoreduplication of terminally differentiated bacteroids. IMPORTANCE Nitrogen fixation by rhizobia in symbiosis with legumes is economically and ecologically important. The symbiosis can involve a complex bacterial transformation-terminal differentiation-that includes major shifts in the transcriptome and cell cycle. Epigenetic regulation is an important regulatory mechanism in diverse bacteria; however, the roles of DNA methylation in rhizobia and symbiotic nitrogen fixation have been poorly investigated. We show that aside from cell cycle regulation, DNA methyltransferases are unlikely to have conserved roles in the biology of bacteria of the genus Ensifer. However, we present evidence consistent with an interpretation that the cell cycle methyltransferase CcrM is dysregulated during symbiosis, which we hypothesize may be a key factor driving the cell cycle switch in terminal differentiation required for effective symbioses.