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Concept: Pilus


Bacterial phototaxis was first recognized over a century ago, but the method by which such small cells can sense the direction of illumination has remained puzzling. The unicellular cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 moves with Type IV pili and measures light intensity and color with a range of photoreceptors. Here, we show that individual Synechocystis cells do not respond to a spatiotemporal gradient in light intensity, but rather they directly and accurately sense the position of a light source. We show that directional light sensing is possible because Synechocystis cells act as spherical microlenses, allowing the cell to see a light source and move towards it. A high-resolution image of the light source is focused on the edge of the cell opposite to the source, triggering movement away from the focused spot. Spherical cyanobacteria are probably the world’s smallest and oldest example of a camera eye.

Concepts: DNA, Cyanobacteria, Archaea, Bacteria, Organism, Light, Synechocystis, Pilus


Bacterial conjugation is the main mechanism for the dissemination of multiple antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. This dissemination could be controlled by molecules that interfere with the conjugation process. A search for conjugation inhibitors among a collection of 1,632 natural compounds, identified tanzawaic acids A and B as best hits. They specially inhibited IncW and IncFII conjugative systems, including plasmids mobilized by them. Plasmids belonging to IncFI, IncI, IncL/M, IncX and IncH incompatibility groups were targeted to a lesser extent, whereas IncN and IncP plasmids were unaffected. Tanzawaic acids showed reduced toxicity in bacterial, fungal or human cells, when compared to synthetic conjugation inhibitors, opening the possibility of their deployment in complex environments, including natural settings relevant for antibiotic resistance dissemination.

Concepts: DNA, Bacteria, Molecular biology, Antibiotic resistance, Escherichia coli, Plasmid, Bacterial conjugation, Pilus


Conjugative pili are widespread bacterial appendages that play important roles in horizontal gene transfer, in spread of antibiotic resistance genes, and as sites of phage attachment. Among conjugative pili, the F “sex” pilus encoded by the F plasmid is the best functionally characterized, and it is also historically the most important, as the discovery of F-plasmid-mediated conjugation ushered in the era of molecular biology and genetics. Yet, its structure is unknown. Here, we present atomic models of two F family pili, the F and pED208 pili, generated from cryoelectron microscopy reconstructions at 5.0 and 3.6 Å resolution, respectively. These structures reveal that conjugative pili are assemblies of stoichiometric protein-phospholipid units. We further demonstrate that each pilus type binds preferentially to particular phospholipids. These structures provide the molecular basis for F pilus assembly and also shed light on the remarkable properties of conjugative pili in bacterial secretion and phage infection.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Bacteria, Molecular biology, Microbiology, Antibiotic resistance, Bacterial conjugation, Pilus


The bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens requires the expression of conductive protein filaments or pili to respire extracellular electron acceptors such as iron oxides and uranium and to wire electroactive biofilms, but the contribution of the protein fiber to charge transport has remained elusive. Here we demonstrate efficient long-range charge transport along individual pili purified free of metal and redox organic cofactors at rates high enough to satisfy the respiratory rates of the cell. Carrier characteristics were within the orders reported for organic semiconductors (mobility) and inorganic nanowires (concentration), and resistivity was within the lower ranges reported for moderately doped silicon nanowires. However, the pilus conductance and the carrier mobility decreased when one of the tyrosines of the predicted axial multistep hopping path was replaced with an alanine. Furthermore, low temperature scanning tunneling microscopy demonstrated the thermal dependence of the differential conductance at the low voltages that operate in biological systems. The results thus provide evidence for thermally activated multistep hopping as the mechanism that allows Geobacter pili to function as protein nanowires between the cell and extracellular electron acceptors.

Concepts: Electron, Oxygen, Cell, Bacteria, Semiconductor, Microscopy, Scanning tunneling microscope, Pilus


Types 1 and P pili are prototypical bacterial cell-surface appendages playing essential roles in mediating adhesion of bacteria to the urinary tract. These pili, assembled by the chaperone-usher pathway, are polymers of pilus subunits assembling into two parts: a thin, short tip fibrillum at the top, mounted on a long pilus rod. The rod adopts a helical quaternary structure and is thought to play essential roles: its formation may drive pilus extrusion by preventing backsliding of the nascent growing pilus within the secretion pore; the rod also has striking spring-like properties, being able to uncoil and recoil depending on the intensity of shear forces generated by urine flow. Here, we present an atomic model of the P pilus generated from a 3.8 Å resolution cryo-electron microscopy reconstruction. This structure provides the molecular basis for the rod’s remarkable mechanical properties and illuminates its role in pilus secretion.

Concepts: Protein, Cell, Bacteria, Atom, Pilus


Each bacterial species has a characteristic shape, but the benefits of specific morphologies remain largely unknown. To understand potential functions for cell shape, we focused on the curved bacterium Caulobacter crescentus. Paradoxically, C. crescentus curvature is robustly maintained in the wild but straight mutants have no known disadvantage in standard laboratory conditions. Here we demonstrate that cell curvature enhances C. crescentus surface colonization in flow. Imaging the formation of microcolonies at high spatial and temporal resolution indicates that flow causes curved cells to orient such that they arc over the surface, thereby decreasing the distance between the surface and polar adhesive pili, and orienting pili to face the surface. C. crescentus thus repurposes pilus retraction, typically used for surface motility, for surface attachment. The benefit provided by curvature is eliminated at high flow intensity, raising the possibility that diversity in curvature adapts related species for life in different flow environments.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Flagellum, Proteobacteria, Pilus, Differential geometry, Caulobacter crescentus, Caulobacter


Type IV pili are surface organelles essential for pathogenicity of many Gram-negative bacteria. In Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the major subunit of type IV pili, PilE, is a target of its general O-linked glycosylation system. This system modifies a diverse set of periplasmic and extracellular gonococcal proteins with a variable set of glycans. Here we show that expression of a particular hexa-histidine-tagged PilE was associated with growth arrest. By studying intra- and extragenic suppressors, we found that this phenotype was dependent on pilus assembly and retraction. Based on these results, we developed a sensitive tool to identify factors with subtle effects on pilus dynamics. Using this approach, we found that glycan chain length has differential effects on the growth arrest that appears to be mediated at the level of pilin subunit-subunit interactions and bidirectional remodelling of pilin between its membrane-associated and assembled states. Gonococcal pilin glycosylation thus plays both an intracellular role in pilus dynamics and potential extracellular roles mediated through type IV pili. In addition to demonstrating the effect of glycosylation on pilus dynamics, the study provides a new way of identifying factors with less dramatic effects on processes involved in type IV pilus biogenesis.

Concepts: Cell, Bacteria, Microbiology, Escherichia coli, Gram negative bacteria, Pilus, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Neisseria


A fluorescence-based live-cell adhesion assay was used to examine biofilm formation by 20 different haloarchaea, including species of Halobacterium, Haloferax and Halorubrum, as well as novel natural isolates from an Antarctic salt lake. Thirteen of the 20 tested strains significantly adhered (P-value < 0.05) to a plastic surface. Examination of adherent cell layers on glass surfaces by differential interference contrast, fluorescence and confocal microscopy showed two types of biofilm structures. Carpet-like, multi-layered biofilms containing micro- and macrocolonies (up to 50 μm in height) were formed by strains of Halobacterium salinarum and the Antarctic isolate t-ADL strain DL24. The second type of biofilm, characterized by large aggregates of cells adhering to surfaces, was formed by Haloferax volcanii DSM 3757(T) and Halorubrum lacusprofundi DL28. Staining of the biofilms formed by the strongly adhesive haloarchaeal strains revealed the presence of extracellular polymers, such as eDNA and glycoconjugates, substances previously shown to stabilize bacterial biofilms. For Hbt. salinarum DSM 3754(T) and Hfx. volcanii DSM 3757(T) , cells adhered within 1 day of culture and remained viable for at least 2 months in mature biofilms. Adherent cells of Hbt. salinarum DSM 3754(T) showed several types of cellular appendages that could be involved in the initial attachment. Our results show that biofilm formation occurs in a surprisingly wide variety of haloarchaeal species.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Microbiology, Microscope, Biofilm, Microscopy, Pilus, Halobacteriaceae


Biofilm formation is recognized as the main virulence factor in a variety of chronic infections. In vitro evaluation of biofilm formation is often achieved by quantification of viable or total cells. However, these methods depend on biofilm disruption, which is often achieved by vortexing or sonication. In this study, we investigated the effects of sonication on the elimination of Staphylococcus epidermidis cell clusters from biofilms grown over time, and quantification was performed by three distinct analytical techniques. Even when a higher number of sonication cycles was used, some stable cell clusters remained in the samples obtained from 48- and 72-h-old biofilms, interfering with the quantification of sessile bacteria by plate counting. On the other hand, the fluorescence microscopy automatic counting system allowed proper quantification of biofilm samples that had undergone any of the described sonication cycles, suggesting that this is a more accurate method for assessing the cell concentration in S. epidermidis biofilms, especially in mature biofilms.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Microbiology, Staphylococcus, Microscope, Biofilm, Pilus, Staphylococcus epidermidis


Bacterial biofilms can generate micro-heterogeneity in terms of surface structures. However, little is known about the associated changes in the physics of cell-cell interaction and its impact on the architecture of biofilms. Here, we used the type IV pilus of Neisseria gonorrhoeae to test whether variation of surface structures induces cell-sorting. We show that the rupture forces between pili are fine-tuned by post-translational modification. Bacterial sorting was dependent on pilus post-translational modification and pilus density. Active force generation was necessary for defined morphologies of mixed microcolonies. The observed morphotypes were in remarkable agreement with the differential strength of adhesion hypothesis proposing that a tug-of-war among surface structures of different cells governs cell sorting. We conclude that in early biofilms the density and rupture force of bacterial surface structures can trigger cell sorting based on similar physical principles as in developing embryos.

Concepts: Cell, Archaea, Bacteria, Physics, Cell biology, Biofilm, Pilus, Neisseria gonorrhoeae