Department of Cell Biology & Molecular Genetics, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, U.S.A.
Whether they live in the soil, drift in the ocean, survive in the lungs of human hosts or reside on the surfaces of leaves, all bacteria must cope with an array of environmental stressors. Bacteria have evolved an impressive suite of protein secretion systems that enable their survival in hostile environments and facilitate colonization of eukaryotic hosts. Collectively, gram-negative bacteria produce six distinct secretion systems that deliver proteins to the extracellular milieu or directly into the cytosol of host cells. The type VI secretion system (T6SS) was discovered recently and is encoded in at least one fourth of all sequenced gram-negative bacterial genomes. T6SS proteins are evolutionarily and structurally related to phage proteins, and it is likely that the T6SS apparatus is reminiscent of phage injection machinery. Most studies of T6SS function have been conducted in the context of host-pathogen interactions. However, the totality of data suggests that the T6SS is a versatile tool with roles in virulence, symbiosis, interbacterial interactions, and antipathogenesis. This review gives a brief history of T6SS discovery and an overview of the pathway's predicted structure and function. Special attention is paid to research addressing the T6SS of plant-associated bacteria, including pathogens, symbionts and plant growth–promoting rhizobacteria.