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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 30;108(35):14643-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1019074108. Epub 2011 Aug 15.

Conjugative DNA transfer into human cells by the VirB/VirD4 type IV secretion system of the bacterial pathogen Bartonella henselae.

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Biozentrum, University of Basel, 4056 Basel, Switzerland.


Bacterial type IV secretion systems (T4SS) mediate interbacterial conjugative DNA transfer and transkingdom protein transfer into eukaryotic host cells in bacterial pathogenesis. The sole bacterium known to naturally transfer DNA into eukaryotic host cells via a T4SS is the plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Here we demonstrate T4SS-mediated DNA transfer from a human bacterial pathogen into human cells. We show that the zoonotic pathogen Bartonella henselae can transfer a cryptic plasmid occurring in the bartonellae into the human endothelial cell line EA.hy926 via its T4SS VirB/VirD4. DNA transfer into EA.hy926 cells was demonstrated by using a reporter derivative of this Bartonella-specific mobilizable plasmid generated by insertion of a eukaryotic egfp-expression cassette. Fusion of the C-terminal secretion signal of the endogenous VirB/VirD4 protein substrate BepD with the plasmid-encoded DNA-transport protein Mob resulted in a 100-fold increased DNA transfer rate. Expression of the delivered egfp gene in EA.hy926 cells required cell division, suggesting that nuclear envelope breakdown may facilitate passive entry of the transferred ssDNA into the nucleus as prerequisite for complementary strand synthesis and transcription of the egfp gene. Addition of an eukaryotic neomycin phosphotransferase expression cassette to the reporter plasmid facilitated selection of stable transgenic EA.hy926 cell lines that display chromosomal integration of the transferred plasmid DNA. Our data suggest that T4SS-dependent DNA transfer into host cells may occur naturally during human infection with Bartonella and that these chronically infecting pathogens have potential for the engineering of in vivo gene-delivery vectors with applications in DNA vaccination and therapeutic gene therapy.

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