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Summary

Bartonellae are pathogenic bacteria uniquely adapted to cause intraerythrocytic infection in their human or animal reservoir host(s). Experimental infection of rats by Bartonella tribocorum revealed the initial colonization of a yet unidentified niche outside of circulating blood. This primary niche periodically seeds bacteria into the bloodstream, resulting in the invasion and persistent intracellular colonisation of erythrocytes. Here, this animal model was used for a genetic analysis of the virB locus (virB2-11) and the downstream located virD4 gene, which together encode a putative type IV secretion system (T4SS). A generic method for marker-less gene replacement allowed the generation of non-polar in-frame deletions in either virB4 or virD4. Both mutants were unable to cause bacteraemia, whereas complementation with the full-length genes in trans completely restored infectivity. Segregation analysis of the complementation plasmids further denoted that VirB4 and VirD4 are required at an early stage of the infection course before the onset of intraerythrocytic bacteraemia. This analysis of defined mutants in an in vivo model identified components of the VirB/VirD4 T4SS as the first bona fide pathogenicity factors in Bartonella.