The facultative intracellular pathogen Salmonella enterica resides within a membrane-bound compartment inside macrophages. This compartment must be acidified for Salmonella to survive within macrophages, possibly because acidic pH promotes expression of Salmonella virulence proteins. We reasoned that Salmonella might sense its surroundings have turned acidic not only upon protonation of the extracytoplasmic domain of a protein sensor but also by an increase in cytosolic ATP levels, because conditions that enhance the proton gradient across the bacterial inner membrane stimulate ATP synthesis. Here we report that an increase in cytosolic ATP promotes transcription of the coding region for the virulence gene mgtC, which is the most highly induced horizontally acquired gene when Salmonella is inside macrophages. This transcript is induced both upon media acidification and by physiological conditions that increase ATP levels independently of acidification. ATP is sensed by the coupling/uncoupling of transcription of the unusually long mgtC leader messenger RNA and translation of a short open reading frame located in this region. A mutation in the mgtC leader messenger RNA that eliminates the response to ATP hinders mgtC expression inside macrophages and attenuates Salmonella virulence in mice. Our results define a singular example of an ATP-sensing leader messenger RNA. Moreover, they indicate that pathogens can interpret extracellular cues by the impact they have on cellular metabolites.
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