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F1000Prime Rep. 2013 Dec 3;5:52. doi: 10.12703/P5-52.

The rise of the Type VI secretion system.

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Imperial College London, Department of Life Sciences, MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection South Kensington Campus, Flowers Building, London SW7 2AZ UK.


Bacterial cells have developed multiple strategies to communicate with their surrounding environment. The intracellular compartment is separated from the milieu by a relatively impermeable cell envelope through which small molecules can passively diffuse, while larger macromolecules, such as proteins, can be actively transported. In Gram-negative bacteria, the cell envelope is a double membrane, which houses several supramolecular protein complexes that facilitate the trafficking of molecules. For example, bacterial pathogens use these types of machines to deliver toxins into target eukaryotic host cells, thus subverting host cellular functions. Six different types of nanomachines, called Type I - Type VI secretion systems (T1SS - T6SS), can be readily identified by their composition and mode of action. A remarkable feature of these protein secretion systems is their similarity to systems with other biological functions, such as motility or the exchange of genetic material. The T6SS has provided a refreshing view on this concept since it shares similarity with the puncturing device of bacteriophages, which is used by these viruses to inject their DNA into bacterial target cells. In contrast, the bacterial T6SS transports toxins into other bacteria, engaging a ferocious competition for the colonization of their environment. Moreover, as with few other secretion systems, the T6SS is capable of injecting toxins into eukaryotic cells, which contributes to a successful infection. This highlights the multifunctional aspects of the T6SS, and our understanding of its mechanistic details is an intense field of investigation with significant implications for ecology, agriculture and medicine.

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