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Mol Microbiol. 2003 Nov;50(4):1429-38.

Assembly of pili on the surface of Corynebacterium diphtheriae.

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Committee on Microbiology, University of Chicago, 920 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Pili of Gram-negative pathogens are formed from pilin precursor molecules by non-covalent association within the outer membrane envelope. Gram-positive microbes employ the cell wall peptidoglycan as a surface organelle for the covalent attachment of proteins, however, an assembly pathway for pili has not yet been revealed. We show here that pili of Corynebacterium diphtheriae are composed of three pilin subunits, SpaA, SpaB and SpaC. SpaA, the major pilin protein, is distributed uniformly along the pilus shaft, whereas SpaB is observed at regular intervals and SpaC seems positioned at the pilus tip. Assembled pili are released from the bacterial surface by treatment with murein hydrolase, suggesting that the pilus fibres may be anchored to the cell wall envelope. All three pilin subunit proteins are synthesized as precursors carrying N-terminal signal peptides and C-terminal sorting signals. Some, but not all, of the six sortase genes encoded in the genome of C. diphtheriae are required for precursor processing, pilus assembly or cell wall envelope attachment. Pilus assembly is proposed to occur by a mechanism of ordered cross-linking, whereby pilin-specific sortase enzymes cleave precursor proteins at sorting signals and involve the side chain amino groups of pilin motif sequences to generate links between pilin subunits. This covalent tethering of adjacent pilin subunits appears to have evolved in many Gram-positive pathogens that encode sortase and pilin subunit genes with sorting signals and pilin motifs.

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