Bacterial conjugation is one of the main mechanisms for horizontal gene transfer. It constitutes a key element in the dissemination of antibiotic resistance and virulence genes to human pathogenic bacteria. DNA transfer is mediated by a membrane-associated macromolecular machinery called Type IV secretion system (T4SS). T4SSs are involved not only in bacterial conjugation but also in the transport of virulence factors by pathogenic bacteria. Thus, the search for specific inhibitors of different T4SS components opens a novel approach to restrict plasmid dissemination. This review highlights recent biochemical and structural findings that shed new light on the molecular mechanisms of DNA and protein transport by T4SS. Based on these data, a model for pilus biogenesis and substrate transfer in conjugative systems is proposed. This model provides a renewed view of the mechanism that might help to envisage new strategies to curb the threating expansion of antibiotic resistance.
Keywords: antibiotic resistance; bacterial conjugation; horizontal gene transfer; macromolecular assemblies; pilus biogenesis; secretion systems.
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