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J Bacteriol. 2006 Sep;188(17):6318-25.

Type III pilus of corynebacteria: Pilus length is determined by the level of its major pilin subunit.

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  • 1Department of Molecular, Microbial, and Structural Biology, University of Connecticut Health Center, 263 Farmington Ave., Farmington, CT 06030, USA.


Multiple pilus gene clusters have been identified in several gram-positive bacterial genomes sequenced to date, including the Actinomycetales, clostridia, streptococci, and corynebacteria. The genome of Corynebacterium diphtheriae contains three pilus gene clusters, two of which have been previously characterized. Here, we report the characterization of the third pilus encoded by the spaHIG cluster. By using electron microscopy and biochemical analysis, we demonstrate that SpaH forms the pilus shaft, while SpaI decorates the structure and SpaG is largely located at the pilus tip. The assembly of the SpaHIG pilus requires a specific sortase located within the spaHIG pilus gene cluster. Deletion of genes specific for the synthesis and polymerization of the other two pilus types does not affect the SpaHIG pilus. Moreover, SpaH but not SpaI or SpaG is essential for the formation of the filament. When expressed under the control of an inducible promoter, the amount of the SpaH pilin regulates pilus length; no pili are assembled from an SpaH precursor that has an alanine in place of the conserved lysine of the SpaH pilin motif. Thus, the spaHIG pilus gene cluster encodes a pilus structure that is independently assembled and antigenically distinct from other pili of C. diphtheriae. We incorporate these findings in a model of sortase-mediated pilus assembly that may be applicable to many gram-positive pathogens.

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