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Summary

Bartonella henselae is an arthropod-borne zoonotic pathogen causing intraerythrocytic bacteraemia in the feline reservoir host and a broad range of clinical manifestations in incidentally infected humans. Remarkably, B. henselae can specifically colonize the human vascular endothelium, resulting in inflammation and the formation of vasoproliferative lesions known as bacillary angiomatosis and bacillary peliosis. Cultured human endothelial cells provide an in vitro system to study this intimate interaction of B. henselae with the vascular endothelium. However, little is known about the bacterial virulence factors required for this pathogenic process. Recently, we identified the type IV secretion system (T4SS) VirB as an essential pathogenicity factor in Bartonella, required  to  establish  intraerythrocytic  infection  in the mammalian reservoir. Here, we demonstrate that the VirB T4SS also mediates most of the virulence attributes associated  with  the  interaction  of B. henselae during the interaction with human endothelial cells. These include: (i) massive rearrangements of the actin cytoskeleton, resulting in the formation of bacterial aggregates and their internalization by the invasome structure; (ii) nuclear factor κB-dependent proinflammatory activation, leading to cell adhesion molecule expression and chemokine secretion, and (iii) inhibition of apoptotic cell death, resulting in enhanced endothelial cell survival. Moreover, we show that the VirB system mediates cytostatic and cytotoxic effects at high bacterial titres, which interfere with a potent VirB-independent mitogenic activity. We conclude that the VirB T4SS is a major virulence determinant of B. henselae, required for targeting multiple endothelial cell functions exploited by this vasculotropic pathogen.