Flp-1, the first representative of a new pilin gene subfamily, is required for non-specific adherence of Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans

Scott C. Kachlany, Paul J. Planet, Rob DeSalle, Daniel H. Fine, David H. Figurski, Jeffrey B. Kaplan

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Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans, a Gram-negative bacterium responsible for localized juvenile periodontitis and other infections such as endocarditis, produces long fibrils of bundled pili that are believed to mediate non-specific, tenacious adherence to surfaces. Previous investigations have implicated an abundant, small (≈6.5 kDa), fibril-associated protein (Flp/Fap) as the primary fibril subunit. Here, we report studies on fibril structure and on the function and evolution of Flp. High-resolution electron microscopy of adherent clinical strain CU1000N revealed long bundles of 5- to 7-nm-diameter pili, whose subunits appear to be arranged in a helical array similar to that observed for type IV pili in other bacteria. Fibrils were found to be associated with the bacterial cell surface and smaller structures thought to be membrane vesicles. A modified version of the CU1000N Flp1 polypeptide with the T7-TAG epitope fused to its C-terminus was expressed in the wild-type strain, and the presence of the modified Flp1 in fibrils was confirmed by immunogold electron microscopy with monoclonal antibody to T7-TAG. To determine the importance of Flp1 in fibril formation and cell adherence, we used transposon IS903φkan to isolate insertion mutations in the flp-1 gene (formerly designated flp). Mutants with insertions early in flp-1 fail to produce fibrils and do not adhere to surfaces. Both fibril production and adherence were restored by cloned flp-1 in trans, thus providing the first evidence that flp-1 is required for fibril formation and tight, non-specific adherence. One mutant was found to have an insertion near the 3′ end of flp-1 that results in the expression of a truncated and altered C-terminus of Flp1. This mutant produced short, unbundled pili, and its adherence to surfaces was significantly less than that of wild-type bacteria. These findings and related observations with the Flp1-T7-TAG protein indicate that the C-terminus of Flp1 is important for the bundling and adherence properties of pili. Extensive sequence comparisons and phylogenetic analysis of 61 predicted prepilin genes of bacteria revealed flp-1 to be a member of a novel and widespread subfamily of type IV prepilin genes. Thus, Flp pili are likely to be expressed by diverse bacterial species. Furthermore, we found that it is common for bacterial genomes to contain multiple alleles of flp-like genes, including the open reading frame (flp-2, previously designated orfA) immediately downstream of flp-1 in A. actino-mycetemcomitans. The duplication and divergence of flp genes in bacteria may be important to the diversification of the colonization properties of these organisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)542-554
Number of pages13
JournalMolecular microbiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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