The VirB/D4 type IV secretion system (T4SS) of Agrobacterium tumefaciens functions to transfer substrates to infected plant cells through assembly of a translocation channel and a surface structure termed a T-pilus. This thesis is focused on identifying contributions of VirB10 to substrate transfer and T-pilus formation through a mutational analysis. VirB10 is a bitopic protein with several domains, including a: (i) cytoplasmic N-terminus, (ii) single transmembrane (TM) α-helix, (iii) proline-rich region (PRR), and (iv) large C-terminal modified β-barrel. I introduced cysteine insertion and substitution mutations throughout the length of VirB10 in order to: (i) test a predicted transmembrane topology, (ii) identify residues/domains contributing to VirB10 stability, oligomerization, and function, and (iii) monitor structural changes accompanying energy activation or substrate translocation. These studies were aided by recent structural resolution of a periplasmic domain of a VirB10 homolog and a ‘core’ complex composed of homologs of VirB10 and two outer membrane associated subunits, VirB7 and VirB9. By use of the substituted cysteine accessibility method (SCAM), I confirmed the bitopic topology of VirB10. Through phenotypic studies of Ala-Cys insertion mutations, I identified “uncoupling” mutations in the TM and β-barrel domains that blocked T-pilus assembly but permitted substrate transfer. I showed that cysteine replacements in the C-terminal periplasmic domain yielded a variety of phenotypes in relation to protein accumulation, oligomerization, substrate transfer, and T-pilus formation. By SCAM, I also gained further evidence that VirB10 adopts different structural states during machine biogenesis. Finally, I showed that VirB10 supports substrate transfer even when its TM domain is extensively mutagenized or substituted with heterologous TM domains. By contrast, specific residues most probably involved in oligomerization of the TM domain are required for biogenesis of the T-pilus.
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Agrobacterium VIRB10 contributions to type IV substrate secretion, T-pilus biogenesis, and outer membrane pore formation