Background: Bacterial type IV secretion systems (T4SSs) comprise a diverse transporter family functioning in conjugation, competence, and effector molecule (DNA and/or protein) translocation. Thirteen genome sequences from Rickettsia, obligate intracellular symbionts/pathogens of a wide range of eukaryotes, have revealed a reduced T4SS relative to the Agrobacterium tumefaciens archetype (vir). However, the Rickettsia T4SS has not been functionally characterized for its role in symbiosis/ virulence, and none of its substrates are known. Results: Superimposition of T4SS structural/functional information over previously identified Rickettsia components implicate a functional Rickettsia T4SS. virB4, virB8 and virB9 are duplicated, yet only one copy of each has the conserved features of similar genes in other T4SSs. An extraordinarily duplicated VirB6 gene encodes five hydrophobic proteins conserved only in a short region known to be involved in DNA transfer in A. tumefaciens. virB1, virB2 and virB7 are newly identified, revealing a Rickettsia T4SS lacking only virB5 relative to the vir archetype. Phylogeny estimation suggests vertical inheritance of all components, despite gene rearrangements into an archipelago of five islets. Similarities of Rickettsia VirB7/ VirB9 to ComB7/ComB9 proteins of ε-proteobacteria, as well as phylogenetic affinities to the Legionella lvh T4SS, imply the Rickettsiales ancestor acquired a vir-like locus from distantly related bacteria, perhaps while residing in a protozoan host. Modern modifications of these systems likely reflect diversification with various eukaryotic host cells. Conclusion: We present the rvh (Rickettsiales vir homolog) T4SS, an evolutionary conserved transporter with an unknown role in rickettsial biology. This work lays the foundation for future laboratory characterization of this system, and also identifies the Legionella lvh T4SS as a suitable genetic model.
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