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Cell Microbiol. 2007 Jul;9(7):1822-33. Epub 2007 Mar 13.

Pili mediate specific adhesion of Streptococcus pyogenes to human tonsil and skin.

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  • 1Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.


Very little is known about the biological functions of pili that have recently been found to be expressed by important Gram-positive pathogens such as Corynebacterium diphtheriae, Streptococcus agalacticae, S. pneumoniae and S. pyogenes. Using various ex vivo tissue and cellular models, here we show that pili mediate adhesion of serotype M1 S. pyogenes strain SF370 to both human tonsil epithelium and primary human keratinocytes, which represent the two main sites of infection by this human-specific pathogen. Mutants lacking minor pilus subunits retained the ability to express cell-surface pili, but these were functionally defective. In contrast to above, pili were not required for S. pyogenes adhesion to either immortalized HEp-2 or A549 cells, highlighting an important limitation of these extensively used adhesion/invasion models. Adhering bacteria were internalized very effectively by both HEp-2 and A549 cells, but not by tonsil epithelium or primary keratinocytes. While pili acted as the primary adhesin, the surface M1 protein clearly enhanced adhesion to tonsil, but surprisingly, had the opposite effect on adhesion to keratinocytes. These studies provide clear evidence that S. pyogenes pili display an adhesive specificity for clinically relevant human tissues and are likely to play a critical role in the initial stages of infection.

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