Early in infection, Neisseria gonorrhoeae can be observed to attach to the epithelial cell surface as microcolonies and induce dramatic changes to the host cell cortex. We tested the hypothesis that type IV pili (Tfp) retraction plays a role in the ultrastructure of both the host cell cortex and the bacterial microcolony. Using serial ultrathin sectioning, transmission electron microscopy and 3D reconstruction of serial 2D images, we have obtained what we believe to be the first 3D reconstructions of the N. gonorrhoeae-host cell interface, and determined the architecture of infected cell microvilli as well as the attached microcolony. Tfp connect both wild-type (wt) and Tfp retraction-deficient bacteria with each other, and with the host cell membrane. Tfp fibres and microvilli form a lattice in the wt microcolony and at its periphery. Wt microcolonies induce microvilli formation and increases of surface area, leading to an approximately ninefold increase in the surface area of the host cell membrane at the site of attachment. In contrast, Tfp retraction-deficient microcolonies do not affect these parameters. Wt microcolonies had a symmetrical, dome-shaped structure with a circular 'footprint', while Tfp retraction-deficient microcolonies were notably less symmetrical. These findings support a major role for Tfp retraction in microvilli and microcolony architecture. They are consistent with the biophysical attributes of Tfp and the effects of Tfp retraction on epithelial cell signalling.
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