Maintenance of cellular phosphate homeostasis is essential for cellular life. The PhoU protein has emerged as a key regulator of this process in bacteria, and it is suggested to modulate phosphate import by PstSCAB and control activation of the phosphate limitation response by the PhoR-PhoB two-component system. However, a proper understanding of PhoU has remained elusive due to numerous complications of mutating
phoU, including loss of viability and the genetic instability of the mutants. Here, we developed two sets of strains of Sinorhizobium melilotithat overcame these limitations and allowed a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the biological and molecular activities of PhoU. The data showed that phoUcannot be deleted in the presence of phosphate unless PstSCAB is inactivated also. However, phoUdeletions were readily recovered in phosphate-free media, and characterization of these mutants revealed that addition of phosphate to the environment resulted in toxic levels of PstSCAB-mediated phosphate accumulation. Phosphate uptake experiments indicated that PhoU significantly decreased the PstSCAB transport rate specifically in phosphate-replete cells but not in phosphate-starved cells and that PhoU could rapidly respond to elevated environmental phosphate concentrations and decrease the PstSCAB transport rate. Site-directed mutagenesis results suggested that the ability of PhoU to respond to phosphate levels was independent of the conformation of the PstSCAB transporter. Additionally, PhoU-PhoU and PhoU-PhoR interactions were detected using a bacterial two-hybrid screen. We propose that PhoU modulates PstSCAB and PhoR-PhoB in response to local, internal fluctuations in phosphate concentrations resulting from PstSCAB-mediated phosphate import. IMPORTANCECorrect maintenance of cellular phosphate homeostasis is critical in all kingdoms of life and in bacteria involves the PhoU protein. This work provides novel insights into the role of the Sinorhizobium melilotiPhoU protein, which plays a key role in rapid adaptation to elevated phosphate concentrations. It is shown that PhoU rapidly responds to elevated phosphate levels by significantly decreasing the phosphate transport of PstSCAB, thereby preventing phosphate toxicity and cell death. Additionally, a new model for phosphate sensing in bacterial species which involves the PhoR-PhoB two-component system is presented. This work provides new insights into the bacterial response to changing environmental conditions and into regulation of the phosphate limitation response that influences numerous bacterial processes, including antibiotic production and virulence.