Many C. difficile strains representing multiple ribotypes develop two colony morphotypes, termed rough and smooth, but the biological implications of this phenomenon have not been explored. Here, we examine the molecular basis and physiological relevance of the distinct colony morphotypes produced by this bacterium. We show that C. difficile reversibly differentiates into rough and smooth colony morphologies and that bacteria derived from the isolates display discrete motility behaviors. We identified an atypical phase-variable signal transduction system consisting of a histidine kinase and two response regulators, named herein colony morphology regulators RST (CmrRST), which mediates the switch in colony morphology and motility behaviors. The CmrRST-regulated surface motility is independent of flagella and type IV pili, suggesting a novel mechanism of cell migration in C. difficile. Microscopic analysis of cell and colony structure indicates that CmrRST promotes the formation of elongated bacteria arranged in bundled chains, which may contribute to bacterial migration on surfaces. In a hamster model of acute C. difficile disease, the CmrRST system is required for disease development. Furthermore, we provide evidence that CmrRST phase varies during infection, suggesting that the intestinal environment impacts the proportion of CmrRST-expressing C. difficile. Our findings indicate that C. difficile employs phase variation of the CmrRST signal transduction system to generate phenotypic heterogeneity during infection, with concomitant effects on bacterial physiology and pathogenesis.
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