Mechanistic aspects of DNA uptake in naturally competent Vibrio cholerae

The physiological state of competence for natural transformation allows bacteria to take up free DNA from the environment and recombine it into their genome. As one of three modes of horizontal gene transfer, natural transformation has hence contributed substantially to the enormous diversity and plasticity of bacterial genomes. With its potential to promote the spread of antibiotic resistances and virulence factors of a variety of pathogens, natural transformation also has an important impact on human health. Even though conserved components required to undergo natural transformation have been identified in many bacterial species, our knowledge on the underlying mechanism of DNA transport remains very limited. To better understand this aspect, we established a first model of DNA uptake in the naturally competent human pathogen Vibrio cholerae. We showed that at least twenty proteins are required for efficient uptake, protection and recombination of transforming DNA in a non-species-specific manner. 14 of these proteins are needed to produce a type IV pilus, which we were able to visualize for the first time. We showed that this competence pilus is not restricted to cell poles, as has been shown for other competent bacterial species (e.g. Bacillus subtilis). Furthermore, we compared the position of this pilus to the localization of other competence proteins and determined their role in the assembly of a surface exposed pilus fiber. While this type IV pilus is important for efficient DNA uptake, we also observed rare transformation events in its absence. In contrast, three pilus-unrelated proteins that are likely involved in the transport process were absolutely required for transformation. Two of them were implicated in DNA transport across the inner membrane. Deletion of the corresponding genes led to a strong accumulation of transforming DNA within the periplasm. However, one of them, ComEA, was essential for DNA uptake across the outer membrane, independently of competence pili. We further characterized the role of this protein by showing that it is localized to the periplasm of competent V. cholerae cells and that it binds to DNA in vivo. Based on our results, we proposed that ComEA directly contributes to DNA transport. Although we showed that DNA uptake across the outer membrane and translocation of DNA into the cytoplasm are functionally uncoupled, our results suggest that the two events coincide spatially. In summary, these findings allow us to present a first mechanistic model of the DNA uptake process in V. cholerae. Many aspects of this model likely apply to other naturally competent bacteria, and therefore represent an important contribution to the general understanding of this basic biological process.

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