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ACS Nano. 2014 Oct 28;8(10):10723-33. doi: 10.1021/nn5044383. Epub 2014 Oct 6.

Nanoscale adhesion forces of Pseudomonas aeruginosa type IV Pili.

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Institute of Life Sciences, Université catholique de Louvain , Croix du Sud, 1, bte L7.04.01., B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.


A variety of bacterial pathogens use nanoscale protein fibers called type IV pili to mediate cell adhesion, a primary step leading to infection. Currently, how these nanofibers respond to mechanical stimuli and how this response is used to control adhesion is poorly understood. Here, we use atomic force microscopy techniques to quantify the forces guiding the adhesion of Pseudomonas aeruginosa type IV pili to surfaces. Using chemical force microscopy and single-cell force spectroscopy, we show that pili strongly bind to hydrophobic surfaces in a time-dependent manner, while they weakly bind to hydrophilic surfaces. Individual nanofibers are capable of withstanding forces up to 250 pN, thereby explaining how they can resist mechanical stress. Pulling on individual pili yields constant force plateaus, presumably reflecting conformational changes, as well as nanospring properties that may help bacteria to withstand physiological shear forces. Analysis of mutant strains demonstrates that these mechanical responses originate solely from type IV pili, while flagella and the cell surface localized and proposed pili-associated adhesin PilY1 play no direct role. We also demonstrate that bacterial-host interactions involve constant force plateaus, the extension of bacterial pili, and the formation of membrane tethers from host cells. We postulate that the unique mechanical responses of type IV pili unravelled here enable the bacteria to firmly attach to biotic and abiotic surfaces and thus maintain attachment when subjected to high shear forces under physiological conditions, helping to explain why pili play a critical role in colonization of the host.


AFM; Pseudomonas aeruginosa; adhesion; chemical force microscopy; mechanics; pathogens; single-cell force spectroscopy; type IV pili

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