Laboratory of General Microbiology, University Bremen, PO. Box 33 04 40, D-28334 Bremen, Germany
Azoarcus sp. strain BH72, as an endophyte of grasses, depends on successful host colonization. Type IV pili are essential for mediating the initial interaction with rice roots. In the genome sequence analysis, the pilT gene was identified, which encodes for a putative type IV pilus retraction protein. PilT of Azoarcus sp. BH72 shares high similarity to PilT of the human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 (77% amino acid sequence identity) and contains a predicted nucleotide-binding motif. To gain more insights into the role of the type IV pili in the colonization process of Azoarcus spp., we constructed an insertional mutant of pilT and a deletion mutant of pilA, the major structural component of the pilus structure. The pilT mutant, as the pilin deletion mutant ΔpilA, was abolished in twitching motility. Western blot analyses and electron microscopy studies demonstrated an enhanced piliation of the Azoarcus pilT mutant strain compared with the wild type, indicating that, indeed, PilT has a role in pilus retraction. Studies on rice root colonization in gnotobiotic cultures revealed that the establishment of microcolonies on the root surface was strongly reduced in the ΔpilA mutant, whereas the surface colonization was reduced by only 50% in the nontwitching pilT mutant. However, endophytic colonization of rice roots was strongly reduced in both mutants. These results demonstrate that the retractile force mediated by PilT is not essential for the bacterial colonization of the plant surface, but that twitching motility is necessary for invasion of and establishment inside the plant. Thus, a novel determinant for endophytic interactions with grasses was identified.