DegP, a periplasmic dual-functional protease and chaperone in Gram-negative bacteria, is critical for bacterial stress resistance, but the precise underlying mechanisms are not fully understood. Here, we show that the protease function of DegP is critical for Escherichia coli cells to maintain membrane integrity, particularly under heat shock conditions (42°C). Site-directed photo-cross-linking, mass spectrometry and immunoblotting analyses reveal that both periplasmic proteins (e.g. OppA and MalE) and β-barrel outer membrane proteins (OMPs) are DegP-interacting proteins and that OppA is degraded by DegP in vitro and in vivo at 42°C. In addition, OmpA and BamA, chimeric β-barrel OMPs containing a soluble periplasmic domain, are bound to DegP in both unfolded and folded forms, whereas only the unfolded forms are degradable by DegP. The presence of folded OmpA as a substrate of DegP is attributed to its periplasmic domain, which is resistant to DegP degradation and even generally protects pure β-barrel OMPs from degradation in an intra-molecular way. Furthermore, a pair of residues (R262 and V328) in the PDZ domain-1 of DegP play important roles for binding unfolded and folded β-barrel OMPs, with R262 being critical. Our study, together with earlier reports, indicates that DegP plays a critical role in protein quality control in the bacterial periplasm by degrading both periplasmic proteins and β-barrel OMPs under stress conditions and likely also by participating in the folding of chimeric β-barrel OMPs. A working model is proposed to illustrate the finely tuned functions of DegP with respect to different substrate proteins.

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