Bacteroidetes are a phylum of Gram-negative bacteria abundant in mammalian-associated polymicrobial communities, where they impact digestion, immunity, and resistance to infection. Despite the extensive competition at high cell density that occurs in these settings, cell contact-dependent mechanisms of interbacterial antagonism, such as the type VI secretion system (T6SS), have not been defined in this group of organisms. Herein we report the bioinformatic and functional characterization of a T6SS-like pathway in diverse Bacteroidetes. Using prominent human gut commensal and soil-associated species, we demonstrate that these systems localize dynamically within the cell, export antibacterial proteins, and target competitor bacteria. The Bacteroidetes system is a distinct pathway with marked differences in gene content and high evolutionary divergence from the canonical T6S pathway. Our findings offer a potential molecular explanation for the abundance of Bacteroidetes in polymicrobial environments, the observed stability of Bacteroidetes in healthy humans, and the barrier presented by the microbiota against pathogens.
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