Nanoscale Pulling of Type IV Pili Reveals Their Flexibility and Adhesion to Surfaces over Extended Lengths of the Pili
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Type IV pili (T4P) are very thin protein filaments that extend from and retract into bacterial cells, allowing them to interact with and colonize a broad array of chemically diverse surfaces. The physical aspects that allow T4P to mediate adherence to many different surfaces remain unclear. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) nanoscale pulling experiments were used to measure the mechanical properties of T4P of a mutant strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 unable to retract its T4P. After adhering bacteria to the end of an AFM cantilever and approaching surfaces of mica, gold, or polystyrene, we observed adhesion of the T4P to all of the surfaces. Pulling of single and multiple T4P on retraction of the cantilever from the surfaces could be described using the worm-like chain (WLC) model. Distinct peaks in the measured distributions of the best-fit values of the persistence length Lp on two different surfaces provide strong evidence for close-packed bundling of very flexible T4P. In addition, we observed force plateaus indicating that adhesion of the T4P to both hydrophilic and hydrophobic surfaces occurs along extended lengths of the T4P. These data shed new light, to our knowledge, on T4P flexibility and support a low-affinity, high-avidity adhesion mechanism that mediates bacteria-surface interactions.
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