Identification of surprisingly diverse type IV pili, across a broad range of gram-positive bacteria

PLoS One. 2011;6(12):e28919. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028919. Epub 2011 Dec 21.


Background: In Gram-negative bacteria, type IV pili (TFP) have long been known to play important roles in such diverse biological phenomena as surface adhesion, motility, and DNA transfer, with significant consequences for pathogenicity. More recently it became apparent that Gram-positive bacteria also express type IV pili; however, little is known about the diversity and abundance of these structures in Gram-positives. Computational tools for automated identification of type IV pilins are not currently available.

Results: To assess TFP diversity in Gram-positive bacteria and facilitate pilin identification, we compiled a comprehensive list of putative Gram-positive pilins encoded by operons containing highly conserved pilus biosynthetic genes (pilB, pilC). A surprisingly large number of species were found to contain multiple TFP operons (pil, com and/or tad). The N-terminal sequences of predicted pilins were exploited to develop PilFind, a rule-based algorithm for genome-wide identification of otherwise poorly conserved type IV pilins in any species, regardless of their association with TFP biosynthetic operons ( Using PilFind to scan 53 Gram-positive genomes (encoding >187,000 proteins), we identified 286 candidate pilins, including 214 in operons containing TFP biosynthetic genes (TBG+ operons). Although trained on Gram-positive pilins, PilFind identified 55 of 58 manually curated Gram-negative pilins in TBG+ operons, as well as 53 additional pilin candidates in operons lacking biosynthetic genes in ten species (>38,000 proteins), including 27 of 29 experimentally verified pilins. False positive rates appear to be low, as PilFind predicted only four pilin candidates in eleven bacterial species (>13,000 proteins) lacking TFP biosynthetic genes.

Conclusions: We have shown that Gram-positive bacteria contain a highly diverse set of type IV pili. PilFind can be an invaluable tool to study bacterial cellular processes known to involve type IV pilus-like structures. Its use in combination with other currently available computational tools should improve the accuracy of predicting the subcellular localization of bacterial proteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Bacterial Proteins / chemistry
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial*
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / genetics
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Operon
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid


  • Bacterial Proteins