Appearance of plaques on a bacterial lawn is a sign of successive rounds of bacteriophage infection. Yet, mechanisms evolved by bacteria to limit plaque spread have been hardly explored. Here, we investigated the dynamics of plaque development by lytic phages infecting the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. We report that plaque expansion is followed by a constriction phase owing to bacterial growth into the plaque zone. This phenomenon exposed an adaptive process, herein termed "phage tolerance response", elicited by non-infected bacteria upon sensing infection of their neighbors. The temporary phage tolerance is executed by the stress-response RNA polymerase sigma factor σX (SigX). Artificial expression of SigX prior to phage attack largely eliminates infection. SigX tolerance is primarily conferred by activation of the dlt operon, encoding enzymes that catalyze D-alanylation of cell wall teichoic acid polymers, the major attachment sites for phages infecting Gram-positive bacteria. D-alanylation impedes phage binding and hence infection, thus enabling the uninfected bacteria to form a protective shield opposing phage spread.
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