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Summary

Type IV pili (Tfp) play a critical role in the pathogenic lifestyle of Neisseria meningitidis and N. gonorrhoeae, notably by facilitating bacterial attachment to human cells, but our understanding of their biogenesis, during which the fibres are assembled in the periplasm, then emerge onto the cell surface and are stabilized, remains fragmentary. We therefore sought to identify the genes required for Tfp formation in N. meningitidis by screening a genome-wide collection of mutants for those that were unable to form aggregates, another phenotype mediated by these organelles. Fifteen proteins, of which only seven were previously characterized, were found to be essential for Tfp biogenesis. One novel component, named PilW, was studied in more detail. We found that PilW is an outer-membrane protein necessary for the stabilization of the fibres but not for their assembly or surface localization, because Tfp could be restored on the surface in a pilW mutant by a mutation in the twitching motility gene pilT. However, Tfp-linked properties, including adherence to human cells, were not restored in a pilW/T mutant, which suggests that PilW is also essential for the functionality of the fibres. Together with the finding that PilW is important for the stability of PilQ multimers, our results extend the current model for Tfp biogenesis by suggesting that a multiprotein machinery in the outer-membrane is involved in the terminal stage of Tfp biogenesis during which growing fibres are not only stabilized, but also become perfectly functional.