Chimeric coupling proteins mediate transfer of heterologous type IV effectors through the Escherichia coli pKM101-encoded conjugation machine

Neal Whitaker, Trista M. Berry, Nathan Rosenthal, Jay E. Gordon, Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, Kathy B. Sheehan, Hilary K. Truchan, Lauren VieBrock, Irene L.G. Newton, Jason A. Carlyon, Peter J. Christie*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Bacterial type IV secretion systems (T4SSs) are composed of two major subfamilies, conjugation machines dedicated to DNA transfer and effector translocators for protein transfer. We show here that the Escherichia coli pKM101-encoded conjugation system, coupled with chimeric substrate receptors, can be repurposed for transfer of heterologous effector proteins. The chimeric receptors were composed of the N-terminal transmembrane domain of pKM101-encoded TraJ fused to soluble domains of VirD4 homologs functioning in Agrobacterium tumefaciens, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, or Wolbachia pipientis. A chimeric receptor assembled from A. tumefaciens VirD4 (VirD4At) mediated transfer of a MOBQ plasmid (pML122) and A. tumefaciens effector proteins (VirE2, VirE3, and VirF) through the pKM101 transfer channel. Equivalent chimeric receptors assembled from the rickettsial VirD4 homologs similarly supported the transfer of known or candidate effectors from rickettsial species. These findings establish a proof of principle for use of the dedicated pKM101 conjugation channel, coupled with chimeric substrate receptors, to screen for translocation competency of protein effectors from recalcitrant species. Many T4SS receptors carry sequence- variable C-terminal domains (CTDs) with unknown function. While VirD4At and the TraJ/VirD4At chimera with their CTDs deleted supported pML122 transfer at wild-type levels, ΔCTD variants supported transfer of protein substrates at strongly diminished or elevated levels. We were unable to detect binding of VirD4At's CTD to the VirE2 effector, although other VirD4At domains bound this substrate in vitro. We propose that CTDs evolved to govern the dynamics of substrate presentation to the T4SS either through transient substrate contacts or by controlling substrate access to other receptor domains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2701-2718
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number19
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Microbiology


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