Publication Date



PLOS Genetics


Bacterial type IV secretion systems (T4SSs) are a versatile family of macromolecular translocators, collectively able to recruit diverse DNA and protein substrates and deliver them to a wide range of cell types. Presently, there is little understanding of how T4SSs recognize substrate repertoires and form productive contacts with specific target cells. Although T4SSs are composed of a number of conserved subunits and adopt certain conserved structural features, they also display considerable compositional and structural diversity. Here, we explored the structural bases underlying the functional versatility of T4SSs through systematic deletion and subunit swapping between two conjugation systems encoded by the distantly-related IncF plasmids, pED208 and F. We identified several regions of intrinsic flexibility among the encoded T4SSs, as evidenced by partial or complete functionality of chimeric machines. Swapping of VirD4-like TraD type IV coupling proteins (T4CPs) yielded functional chimeras, indicative of relaxed specificity at the substrate-TraD and TraD-T4SS interfaces. Through mutational analyses, we further delineated domains of the TraD T4CPs contributing to recruitment of cognate vs heterologous DNA substrates. Remarkably, swaps of components comprising the outer membrane core complexes, a few F-specific subunits, or the TraA pilins supported DNA transfer in the absence of detectable pilus production. Among sequenced enterobacterial species in the NCBI database, we identified many strains that harbor two or more F-like plasmids and many F plasmids lacking one or more T4SS components required for self-transfer. We confirmed that host cells carrying co-resident, non-selftransmissible variants of pED208 and F elaborate chimeric T4SSs, as evidenced by transmission of both plasmids. We propose that T4SS plasticity enables the facile assembly of functional chimeras, and this intrinsic flexibility at the structural level can account for functional diversification of this superfamily over evolutionary time and, on a more immediate time-scale, to proliferation of transfer-defective MGEs in nature.


F Factor, Type IV Secretion Systems, Fimbriae Proteins, Plasmids, DNA, Bacterial, Bacterial Proteins



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