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Mol Microbiol. 1994 Apr;12(1):17-22.

Promiscuous DNA transfer system of Agrobacterium tumefaciens: role of the virB operon in sex pilus assembly and synthesis.

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Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis 95616.


Conjugative transfer of DNA that occurs between bacteria also operates between bacteria and higher organisms. The transfer of DNA between Gram-negative bacteria requires initial contact by a sex pilus followed by DNA traversing four membranes (donor plus recipient) using a transmembrane pore. Accumulating evidence suggests that transfer of the T-DNA from Agrobacterium tumefaciens to plants may also occur via a conjugative mechanism. The virB operon of the Ti plasmid exhibits close homologies to genes that are known to encode the pilin subunits and pilin assembly proteins. The proteins encoded by the PilW operon of IncW plasmid R388 share strong similarities (average similarity = 50.8%) with VirB proteins. Similarly, the TraA, TraL and TraC proteins of IncF plasmid F have similarities to VirB2, VirB3 and VirB4 respectively (average similarity = 45.3%). VirB2 protein (12.3 kDa) contains a signal peptidase-I cleavage sequence that generates a polypeptide of 7.2 kDa. Likewise, the 12.8 kDa propilin protein TraA of plasmid F also possesses a peptidase-I cleavage site that generates the 7.2 kDa pilin structural protein. Similar amino acid sequences of the conjugative transfer genes of F, R388 as well as plasmid RP4 and the genes of the ptI operon of Bortedella pertussis suggest the existence of a superfamily of transmembrane proteins adapted to the promiscuous transfer of DNA-protein complexes.

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