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Abstract

Acinetobacter baumannii is a severe threat to human health as a frequently multidrug-resistant hospital-acquired pathogen. Part of the danger from this bacterium comes from its genome plasticity and ability to evolve quickly by taking up and recombining external DNA into its own genome in a process called natural competence for transformation. This mode of horizontal gene transfer is one of the major ways pathogens can acquire new antimicrobial resistances and toxic traits. Because these processes in A. baumannii are not well studied, we herein characterized new aspects of natural transformability in this species that include the species’ competence window. We uncovered a strong correlation with a growth–phase-dependent synthesis of a type IV pilus (TFP), which constitutes the central part of competence-induced DNA-uptake machinery. We used bacterial genetics and microscopy to demonstrate that the TFP is essential for the natural transformability and surface motility of A. baumannii, whereas pilus-unrelated proteins of the DNA-uptake complex do not impact the motility phenotype. Furthermore, TFP biogenesis and assembly is subject to input from two regulatory systems that are homologous to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, namely the PilSR two-component system and the Pil-Chp chemosensory system. We demonstrated that these systems not only impact the piliation status of cells but also their ability to take up DNA for transformation. Importantly, we report on discrepancies between TFP biogenesis and natural transformability within the same genus by comparing A. baumannii to data reported for A. baylyi, the latter of which served for decades as a model for natural competence.

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