Type IV pili of pathogenic Neisseriae elicit cortical plaque formation in epithelial cells

Alexey J. Merz, Caroline A. Enns, Magdalene So

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

163 Scopus citations


The pathogenic Neisseriae Neisseria meningitidis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae, initiate colonization by attaching to host cells using type IV pili. Subsequent adhesive interactions are mediated through the binding of other bacterial adhesins, in particular the Opa family of outer membrane proteins. Here, we have shown that pilus-mediated adhesion to host cells by either meningococci or gonococci triggers the rapid, localized formation of dramatic cortical plaques in host epithelial cells. Cortical plaques are enriched in both components of the cortical cytoskeleton and a subset of integral membrane proteins. These include: CD44v3, a heparan sulphate proteoglycan that may serve as an Opa receptor; EGFR, a receptor tyrosine kinase; CD44 and ICAM-1, adhesion molecules known to mediate inflammatory responses; f-actin; and ezrin, a component that tethers membrane components to the actin cytoskeleton. Genetic analyses reveal that cortical plaque formation is highly adhesin specific. Both pilE and pilC null mutants fail to induce cortical plaques, indicating that neisserial type IV pili are required for cortical plaque induction. Mutations in pilT, a gene required for pilus-mediated twitching motility, confer a partial defect in cortical plaque formation. In contrast to type IV pili, many other neisserial surface structures are not involved in cortical plaque induction, including Opa, Opc, glycolipid GgO4-binding adhesins, polysialic acid capsule or a particular lipo-oligosaccharide variant. Furthermore, it is shown that type IV pili allow gonococci to overcome the inhibitory effect of heparin, a soluble receptor analogue, on gonococcal invasion of Chang and A431 epithelial cells. These and other observations strongly suggest that type IV pili play an active role in initiating neisserial infection of the mucosal surface in vivo. The functions of type IV pili and other neisserial adhesins are discussed in the specific context of the mucosal microenvironment, and a multistep model for neisserial colonization of mucosal epithelia is proposed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1316-1332
Number of pages17
JournalMolecular Microbiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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