Infoscience

Thesis

Folding and Structure of the Pore Forming Toxin Aerolysin

The first obstacle encountered by a bacterial pathogen once inside the host is the plasma membrane surrounding the target cells. Throughout evolution bacteria has acquired and maintained genes that upon stimulation express proteins capable of damaging the membrane of other cells. Among these proteins pore forming toxins (PFTs) are a major class of bacterial effectors that are upregulated and secreted during bacterial infections. As their name suggests, pore forming toxins are proteins capable of inserting transmembrane pores in the membranes of the target cells which in turn leads to the lysis of the cell and release of nutrients. The mechanism by which the PFTs function during a bacterial attack has been the subject of extensive research over the years. In most cases PFTs are produced by the bacteria as soluble proteins that require the help of specialized secretion mechanisms to arrive as functional proteins in the external milieu. Once secreted by the producing bacteria these proteins diffuse towards the target cell and bind to the target membrane. Once bound to the plasma membrane of target cells they are capable of initiating a series of structural changes that will eventually lead to the conversion of the water-soluble PFT to a membrane inserted channel. The series of events and the characterization of the different structural changes required for a PFT to convert from a water-soluble protein to a membrane inserted channel is the subject of this thesis. Aerolysin, a PFT produced by Aeromonas hydrophilla, is one of the best candidates for a research into the details of the mode of action of bacterial PFTs. This particular PFT is produced by the bacterium as a soluble periplasmic protein and then secreted outside of the bacterium as a fully folded protein with the help of a type II secretion system. Binding to the target cell is achieved through two high affinity binding sites that recognize sugar modifications which are absent in A. hydrophila, a mechanism that insures that the producing cell is not damaged by its own PFT. Once bound to the target cell aerolysin requires proteolytic activation, a step which cleaves a C-terminal peptide (CTP). Activation is achieved using proteases present on the target cell and the removal of the CTP is thought to initiate the sequence of events leading to pore formation. Following activation aerolysin is able to oligomerize forming heptameric ring-like structures which spontaneously rearrange forming a transmembrane beta-barrel through the membrane. My thesis project, focused on the structural changes required in the mode of action of aerolysin, set off trying to identify the aminoacid sequence involved in the formation of the transmembrane beta-barrel. It was long thought that aerolysin would cross the membrane in a porin like fashin, forming a beta-barrel through the plasma membrane, primarily due to the lack of a hydrophobic patch of aminoacids in its sequence. An initial model proposed in the early '90s postulated that the only region that could form the transmembrane beta-barrel was the Domain 4 of the protein. In this model the removal of the CTP in the activation process would unravel the hydrophobic residues required for the beta-barrel formation and insertion. We and others were able to show however that the fourth domain of the protein is not involved directly in the formation of the pore and we identified a conserved loop in the third domain of the protein which is responsible for the formation of the beta-barrel. This loop presents an alternating pattern of hydrophobic and hydrophilic residues, a requirement for the formation of a transmembrane pore with a hydrophobic exterior and a hydrophilic cavity. Our research led us to propose a sequence of events upon insertion of the aerolysin pore in which a rearrangement of the DIII-loops of the seven monomers in the oligomer forms the initial beta-barrel and generates a hydrophobic tip which drives insertion of the structure through the membrane. Once the bilayer has been crossed the hydrophobic tips folds back on the membrane in a rivet like fashion, anchoring the pore. Following the identification of the DIII-loop as the region that forms the transmembrane pore my researched focused on the structural changes leading to the conversion of a water-soluble protein to a membrane inserted oligomer. While removal of the CTP is the key requirement for this conversion, the role of the CTP in aerolysin mode of action and the sequence of events triggered by its removal is not fully understood. Using a combination of in vivo, in vitro and in silico approaches we were able to show that the CTP plays a wider role in the aerolysin mode of action than previously thought. Indeed our research shows that the CTP is initially required for the correct folding of the soluble protein inside the bacterium, acting as a intramolecular chaperone during the folding of aerolysin. Following folding the CTP binds tightly to a hydrophobic pocket in the fourth domain of the protein locking the PFT in its soluble conformation, a role resembling C-terminal intramolecular chaperones previously described for tail spikes of bacteriophages or fiber forming collagen. This research will be continued with a study on the structural changes triggered by the removal of the CTP and their role in oligomerization and pore formation. The main focus of my thesis project has been however the determination of the structure of the oligomeric form of aerolysin. This part of the project is still ongoing and will be discussed in the final chapter of my thesis. Using 2D and 3D crystallography, AFM and modeling we hope to be able to improve our current understanding of the aerolysin heptameric form and the structural changes required in its formation.

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