Pseudomonas aeruginosa type IV minor pilins and PilY1 regulate virulence by modulating FimS-AlgR activity Academic Article uri icon

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  • AbstractType IV pili are expressed by a wide range of prokaryotes, including the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These flexible fibres mediate twitching motility, biofilm maturation, surface adhesion, and virulence. The pilus is composed mainly of major pilin subunits while the low abundance minor pilins FimU-PilVWXE and the putative adhesin PilY1 prime pilus assembly and are proposed to form the pilus tip. The minor pilins and PilY1 are encoded in an operon that is positively regulated by the FimS-AlgR two-component system. Independent of pilus assembly, PilY1 is proposed to be a mechanosensory component that - in conjunction with minor pilins - triggers up-regulation of acute virulence phenotypes upon surface attachment. Here, we investigated the link between the minor pilins and virulence. pilW, pilX, and pilY1 mutants had reduced virulence towards Caenorhabditis elegans relative to wild type or a major pilin mutant, implying a role in pathogenicity that is independent of pilus assembly. We hypothesized that loss of specific minor pilins relieves feedback inhibition on FimS-AlgR, increasing transcription of the minor pilin operon and other members of the AlgR regulon. Reporter assays confirmed that FimS-AlgR were required for the increased expression from the minor pilin operon promoter upon loss of select minor pilins. Overexpression of AlgR or its hyperactivation via point mutation reduced virulence, and the virulence defects of pilW, pilX, and pilY1 mutants were dependent on FimS-AlgR expression and activation. We propose that PilY1 and the minor pilins inhibit their own expression, and that loss of these proteins leads to FimS-mediated activation of AlgR and reduced expression of acute-phase virulence factors. This mechanism could contribute to adaptation of P. aeruginosa in chronic lung infections, as mutations in the minor pilin operon result in the loss of piliation and increased expression of AlgR-dependent virulence factors – such as alginate – that are characteristic of such infections.Author summaryPseudomonas aeruginosa causes dangerous infections, including chronic lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. It uses many strategies to infect its hosts, including deployment of grappling hook-like fibres called type IV pili. Among the components involved in assembly and function of the pilus are five proteins called minor pilins that - along with a larger protein called PilY1 - may help the pilus attach to surfaces. In a roundworm infection model, loss of PilY1 and specific minor pilins delayed killing, while loss of other pilus proteins did not. We traced this effect to increased activation of the FimS-AlgR regulatory system that inhibits expression of virulence factors used to initiate infections, while positively regulating chronic infection traits such as alginate production, a phenotype called mucoidy. A disruption in the appropriate timing of FimS-AlgR-dependent virulence factor expression when select minor pilins or PilY1 are missing may explain why those pilus-deficient mutants have reduced virulence compared with others whose products are not under FimS-AlgR control. Increased FimS-AlgR activity upon loss of PilY1 and specific minor pilins could help to explain the frequent co-occurrence of the non-piliated and mucoid phenotypes that are hallmarks of chronic P. aeruginosa lung infections.


  • Marko, Victoria A
  • Kilmury, Sara LN
  • MacNeil, Lesley T
  • Burrows, Lori