DNA-uptake machinery of naturally competent Vibrio cholerae
Natural competence for transformation is a mode of horizontal gene transfer that is commonly used by bacteria to take up DNA from their environment. As part of this developmental program, so-called competence genes, which encode the components of a DNA-uptake machinery, are expressed. Several models have been proposed for the DNA-uptake complexes of competent bacteria, and most include a type IV (pseudo)pilus as a core component. However, cell-biology-based approaches to visualizing competence proteins have so far been restricted to Gram-positive bacteria. Here, we report the visualization of a competence-induced pilus in the Gram-negative bacterium Vibrio cholerae. We show that piliated cells mostly contain a single pilus that is not biased toward a polar localization and that this pilus colocalizes with the outer membrane secretin PilQ. PilQ, on the other hand, forms several foci around the cell and occasionally colocalizes with the dynamic cytoplasmic-traffic ATPase PilB, which is required for pilus extension. We also determined the minimum competence regulon of V. cholerae, which includes at least 19 genes. Bacteria with mutations in those genes were characterized with respect to the presence of surface-exposed pili, DNA uptake, and natural transformability. Based on these phenotypes, we propose that DNA uptake in naturally competent V. cholerae cells occurs in at least two steps: a pilus-dependent translocation of the incoming DNA across the outer membrane and a pilus-independent shuttling of the DNA through the periplasm and into the cytoplasm.