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J Bacteriol. 2001 Jun;183(12):3642-51.

VirB7 lipoprotein is exocellular and associates with the Agrobacterium tumefaciens T pilus.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, The University of Texas-Houston Medical School, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


Agrobacterium tumefaciens transfers oncogenic T-DNA and effector proteins to plant cells via a type IV secretion pathway. This transfer system, assembled from the products of the virB operon, is thought to consist of a transenvelope mating channel and the T pilus. When screened for the presence of VirB and VirE proteins, material sheared from the cell surface of octopine strain A348 was seen to possess detectable levels of VirB2 pilin, VirB5, and the VirB7 outer membrane lipoprotein. Material sheared from the cell surface of most virB gene deletion mutants also possessed VirB7, but not VirB2 or VirB5. During purification of the T pilus from wild-type cells, VirB2, VirB5, and VirB7 cofractionated through successive steps of gel filtration chromatography and sucrose density gradient centrifugation. A complex containing VirB2 and VirB7 was precipitated from a gel filtration fraction enriched for T pilus with both anti-VirB2 and anti-VirB7 antiserum. Both the exocellular and cellular forms of VirB7 migrated as disulfide-cross-linked dimers and monomers when samples were electrophoresed under nonreducing conditions. A mutant synthesizing VirB7 with a Ser substitution of the lipid-modified Cys15 residue failed to elaborate the T pilus, whereas a mutant synthesizing VirB7 with a Ser substitution for the disulfide-reactive Cys24 residue produced very low levels of T pilus. Together, these findings establish that the VirB7 lipoprotein localizes exocellularly, it associates with the T pilus, and both VirB7 lipid modification and disulfide cross-linking are important for T-pilus assembly. T-pilus-associated VirB2 migrated in nonreducing gels as a monomer and a disulfide-cross-linked homodimer, whereas cellular VirB2 migrated as a monomer. A strain synthesizing a VirB2 mutant with a Ser substitution for the reactive Cys64 residue elaborated T pilus but exhibited an attenuated virulence phenotype. Dithiothreitol-treated T pilus composed of native VirB2 pilin and untreated T pilus composed of the VirB2C64S mutant pilin distributed in sucrose gradients more predominantly in regions of lower sucrose density than untreated, native T pili. These findings indicate that intermolecular cross-linking of pilin monomers is not required for T-pilus production, but cross-linking does contribute to T-pilus stabilization.

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