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PLoS Genet. 2013 Nov;9(11):e1003891. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003891. Epub 2013 Nov 7.

Molecular recognition by a polymorphic cell surface receptor governs cooperative behaviors in bacteria.

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Department of Molecular Biology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming, United States of America.


Cell-cell recognition is a fundamental process that allows cells to coordinate multicellular behaviors. Some microbes, such as myxobacteria, build multicellular fruiting bodies from free-living cells. However, how bacterial cells recognize each other by contact is poorly understood. Here we show that myxobacteria engage in recognition through interactions between TraA cell surface receptors, which leads to the fusion and exchange of outer membrane (OM) components. OM exchange is shown to be selective among 17 environmental isolates, as exchange partners parsed into five major recognition groups. TraA is the determinant of molecular specificity because: (i) exchange partners correlated with sequence conservation within its polymorphic PA14-like domain and (ii) traA allele replacements predictably changed partner specificity. Swapping traA alleles also reprogrammed social interactions among strains, including the regulation of motility and conferred immunity from inter-strain killing. We suggest that TraA helps guide the transition of single cells into a coherent bacterial community, by a proposed mechanism that is analogous to mitochondrial fusion and fission cycling that mixes contents to establish a homogenous population. In evolutionary terms, traA functions as a rare greenbeard gene that recognizes others that bear the same allele to confer beneficial treatment.

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