P-pili on uropathogenic bacteria are 68-A-diameter rods typically 1 microm in length. These structures project from the outer membrane of Escherichia coli, and contain on their distal tip a thin fibrillum, 25 A in diameter and 150 A long, displaying an adhesin protein responsible for the binding of the bacterium to the surface of epithelial cells lining the urinary tract. Operationally, it is possible to identify three morphologically distinct states of the 68-A-diameter P-pili rods, based on the degree of curvature each can adopt. These states are designated "straight," "curved," and "highly curved." The rods can also be unwound to form thin "threads" that are very similar to the tip fibrillae. Electron microscope data are used to distinguish among these four morphological states and to define limits on the shapes of the pilus proteins. The mechanical properties of the PapA polymers are assessed, and implications of rod polymorphism for pilus function are discussed. A wide variety of data are considered in light of the possibility that all pilins are similar in molecular architecture, with specific differences designed to optimize their specialized functions in the pilus assembly.
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