Epigenetic DNA methylation plays an important role in bacteria by influencing gene expression and allowing discrimination between self-DNA and intruders such as phages and plasmids.
Restriction–modification (RM) systems use a methyltransferase (MTase) to modify a specific sequence motif, thus protecting host DNA from cleavage by a cognate restriction endonuclease (REase) while leaving invading DNA vulnerable. Other REases occur solitarily and cleave methylated DNA. REases and RM systems are frequently mobile, influencing horizontal gene transfer by altering the compatibility of the host for foreign DNA uptake. However, whether mobile defence systems affect pre-existing host defences remains obscure.
Here, we reveal an epigenetic conflict between an RM system (PcaRCI) and a methylation-dependent REase (PcaRCII) in the plant pathogen Pectobacterium carotovorum RC5297. The PcaRCI RM system provides potent protection against unmethylated plasmids and phages, but its methylation motif is targeted by the methylation-dependent PcaRCII. This potentially lethal co-existence is enabled through epigenetic silencing of the PcaRCII-encoding gene via promoter methylation by the PcaRCI MTase. Comparative genome analyses suggest that the PcaRCII-encoding gene was already present and was silenced upon establishment of the PcaRCI system. These findings provide a striking example for selfishness of RM systems and intracellular competition between different defences.