The electrically conductive pili of Geobacter s pecies are a recently evolved feature for extracellular electron transfer

Microb Genom. 2016 Aug 25;2(8):e000072. doi: 10.1099/mgen.0.000072. eCollection 2016 Aug.


The electrically conductive pili (e-pili) of Geobactersulfurreducens have environmental and practical significance because they can facilitate electron transfer to insoluble Fe(III) oxides; to other microbial species; and through electrically conductive biofilms. E-pili conductivity has been attributed to the truncated PilA monomer, which permits tight packing of aromatic amino acids to form a conductive path along the length of e-pili. In order to better understand the evolution and distribution of e-pili in the microbial world, type IVa PilA proteins from various Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria were examined with a particular emphasis on Fe(III)-respiring bacteria. E-pilin genes are primarily restricted to a tight phylogenetic group in the order Desulfuromonadales. The downstream gene in all but one of the Desulfuromonadales that possess an e-pilin gene is a gene previously annotated as 'pilA-C' that has characteristics suggesting that it may encode an outer-membrane protein. Other genes associated with pilin function are clustered with e-pilin and 'pilA-C' genes in the Desulfuromonadales. In contrast, in the few bacteria outside the Desulfuromonadales that contain e-pilin genes, the other genes required for pilin function may have been acquired through horizontal gene transfer. Of the 95 known Fe(III)-reducing micro-organisms for which genomes are available, 80 % lack e-pilin genes, suggesting that e-pili are just one of several mechanisms involved in extracellular electron transport. These studies provide insight into where and when e-pili are likely to contribute to extracellular electron transport processes that are biogeochemically important and involved in bioenergy conversions.

Keywords: Geobacter; e-pilin; evolution; extracellular electron transfer; positive selection; type IVa PilA.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Electromagnetic Phenomena*
  • Electron Transport
  • Ferric Compounds
  • Fimbriae Proteins / genetics
  • Fimbriae Proteins / metabolism
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial / metabolism
  • Geobacter / classification
  • Geobacter / physiology*
  • Phylogeny


  • Ferric Compounds
  • Fimbriae Proteins