Disruption of VirB6 paralogs in anaplasma phagocytophilum attenuates its growth

Francy L. Crosby, Ulrike G. Munderloh, Curtis M. Nelson, Michael J. Herron, Anna M. Lundgren, Yu Ping Xiao, David R. Allred, Anthony F. Barbet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many pathogenic bacteria translocate virulence factors into their eukaryotic hosts by means of type IV secretion systems (T4SS) spanning the inner and outer membranes. Genes encoding components of these systems have been identified within the order Rickettsiales based upon their sequence similarities to other prototypical systems. Anaplasma phagocytophilum strains are obligate intracellular, tick-borne bacteria that are members of this order. The organization of these components at the genomic level was determined in several Anaplasma phagocytophilum strains, showing overall conservation, with the exceptions of the virB2 and virB6 genes. The virB6 loci are characterized by the presence of four virB6 copies (virB6-1 through virB6-4) arranged in tandem within a gene cluster known as the sodB-virB operon. Interestingly, the virB6-4 gene varies significantly in length among different strains due to extensive tandem repeats at the 3= end. To gain an understanding of how these enigmatic virB6 genes function in A. phagocytophilum, we investigated their expression in infected human and tick cells. Our results show that these genes are expressed by A. phagocytophilum replicating in both cell types and that VirB6-3 and VirB6-4 proteins are surface exposed. Analysis of an A. phagocytophilum mutant carrying the Himar1 transposon within the virB6-4 gene demonstrated that the insertion not only disrupted its expression but also exerted a polar effect on the sodB-virB operon. Moreover, the altered expression of genes within this operon was associated with the attenuated in vitro growth of A. phagocytophilum in human and tick cells, indicating the importance of these genes in the physiology of this obligate intracellular bacterium in such different environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00301-20
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants R21AI109496 and RO1AI042792.


  • Anaplasma phagocytophilum
  • Attenuated growth
  • Obligate intracellular pathogens
  • Rickettsiales
  • Tick-borne bacteria
  • Transposon mutagenesis
  • Type IV secretion
  • VirB6
  • Virulence

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