The structure of an archaeal pilus.

Ying A Wang, Xiong Yu, Sandy Y M Ng, Ken F Jarrell, Edward H Egelman


Bacterial pili are involved in a host of activities, including motility, adhesion, transformation, and immune escape. Structural studies of these pili have shown that several distinctly different classes exist, with no common origin. Remarkably, it is now known that the archaeal flagellar filament appears to have a common origin with the bacterial type IV pilus, and assembly in both systems involves hydrophobic N-terminal alpha-helices that form three-stranded coils in the center of these filaments. Recent work has identified further genes in archaea as being similar to bacterial type IV pilins, but the function or structures formed by such gene products was unknown. Using electron cryo-microscopy, we show that an archaeal pilus from Methanococcus maripaludis has a structure entirely different from that of any of the known bacterial pili. Two subunit packing arrangements were identified: one has rings of four subunits spaced by approximately 44 A and the other has a one-start helical symmetry with approximately 2.6 subunits per turn of a approximately 30 A pitch helix. Remarkably, these schemes appear to coexist within the same filaments. For the segments composed of rings, the twist between adjacent rings is quite variable, while for the segments having a one-start helix there is a large variability in both the axial rise and the twist per subunit. Since this pilus appears to be assembled from a type IV pilin-like protein with a hydrophobic N-terminal helix, it provides yet another example of how different quaternary structures can be formed from similar building blocks. This result has many implications for understanding the evolutionary divergence of bacteria and archaea.