Cell Width Dictates Type VI Secretion Tail Length

Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 4;29(21):3707-3713.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.08.058. Epub 2019 Oct 17.


The type VI secretion system (T6SS) is a multiprotein apparatus that injects protein effectors into target cells, hence playing a critical role in pathogenesis and in microbial communities [1-4]. The T6SS belongs to the broad family of contractile injection systems (CISs), such as Myoviridae bacteriophages and R-pyocins, that use a spring-like tail to propel a needle loaded with effectors [5, 6]. The T6SS tail comprises an assembly baseplate on which polymerizes a needle, made of stacked Hcp hexamers, tipped by the VgrG-PAAR spike complex and wrapped by the contractile sheath made of TssB and TssC [7-13]. The T6SS tail is anchored to the cell envelope by a membrane complex that also serves as channel for the passage of the needle upon sheath contraction [14-16]. In most CISs, the length of the tail sheath is invariable and is usually ensured by a dedicated protein called tape measure protein (TMP) [17-22]. Here, we show that the length of the T6SS tail is constant in enteroaggregative Escherichia coli cells, suggesting that it is strictly controlled. By overproducing T6SS tail subunits, we demonstrate that component stoichiometry does not participate to the regulation of tail length. The observation of longer T6SS tails when the apparatus is relocalized at the cell pole further shows that tail length is not controlled by a TMP. Finally, we show that tail stops its elongation when in contact with the opposite membrane and thus that T6SS tail length is determined by the cell width.

Keywords: TagA; cell width; contractile injection systems; length regulation; membrane; molecular ruler; protein secretion; protein transport; tail sheath.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli / physiology*
  • Protein Multimerization
  • Type VI Secretion Systems / physiology*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Type VI Secretion Systems