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J Mol Evol. 2000 May;50(5):424-42.

Conserved structural features in class I major fimbrial subunits (Pilin) in gram-negative bacteria. Molecular basis of classification in seven subfamilies and identification of intrasubfamily sequence signature motifs which might Be implicated in quaternary structure.

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Laboratoire de Microbiologie, INRA, Centre de Recherches de Clermont-Ferrand-Theix, 63122 Saint-Genés-Champanelle, France.


Type 1 and P-pili are prototype members of Class I fimbriae produced by Gram-negative bacteria. Despite common structural characteristics, the low level of amino acid sequence conservation among the Class I major fimbrial subunits (pilins) indicates considerable evolutionary distance between members of this superfamily. We highlight here structural relatedness between Class I pilins from their two-dimensional sequence analysis using hydrophobic cluster analysis (HCA) and secondary structure predictions (PHD program). We present evidence that all members of the Class I pilin family have clear structural relatedness and suggest that classification based on phylogenetic analysis of Class I pilins into seven subfamilies correlates with differences in structural properties of the amino acid sequences. Using a sensitive alignment process (HCA), we identified 29 residues in topohydrophobic positions which probably play a prominent role in folding. The most striking aspects that distinguish the different pilin subfamilies are (i) large variation in the length of the loops connecting the structurally conserved regions and (ii) intrasubfamily sequence signature motifs located on regions predicted to be in the beta-conformation. We suggest that these "intrasubfamily sequence signature motifs" are part of interactive surfaces which participate in subunit-subunit interactions. These motifs prove highly useful in characterizing and classifying new Class I fimbriae that have not yet been described and whose sequence diverges appreciably from those of characterized groups. (After the submission of our manuscript, the experimental structure of Class I pilus subunits was published. In light of these actual pilin structures, a comparison has been made between the predicted results and the crystal structure in the Note Added in Proof.).

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