Evidence that immunization with TP0751, a bipartite Treponema pallidum lipoprotein with an intrinsically disordered region and lipocalin fold, fails to protect in the rabbit model of experimental syphilis

PLoS Pathog. 2020 Sep 16;16(9):e1008871. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1008871. eCollection 2020 Sep.


Deconvolution of syphilis pathogenesis and selection of candidate syphilis vaccinogens requires detailed knowledge of the molecular architecture of the Treponema pallidum outer membrane (OM). The T. pallidum OM contains a low density of integral OM proteins, while the spirochete's many lipoprotein immunogens are periplasmic. TP0751, a lipoprotein with a lipocalin fold, is reportedly a surface-exposed protease/adhesin and protective antigen. The rapid expansion of calycin/lipocalin structures in the RCSB PDB database prompted a comprehensive reassessment of TP0751. Small angle X-ray scattering analysis of full-length protein revealed a bipartite topology consisting of an N-terminal, intrinsically disordered region (IDR) and the previously characterized C-terminal lipocalin domain. A DALI server query using the lipocalin domain yielded 97 hits, 52 belonging to the calycin superfamily, including 15 bacterial lipocalins, but no Gram-negative surface proteins. Surprisingly, Tpp17 (TP0435) was identified as a structural ortholog of TP0751. In silico docking predicted that TP0751 can bind diverse ligands along the rim of its eight-stranded β-barrel; high affinity binding of one predicted ligand, heme, to the lipocalin domain was demonstrated. qRT-PCR and immunoblotting revealed very low expression of TP0751 compared to other T. pallidum lipoproteins. Immunoblot analysis of immune rabbit serum failed to detect TP0751 antibodies, while only one of five patients with secondary syphilis mounted a discernible TP0751-specific antibody response. In opsonophagocytosis assays, neither TP0751 nor Tpp17 antibodies promoted uptake of T. pallidum by rabbit peritoneal macrophages. Rabbits immunized with intact, full-length TP0751 showed no protection against local or disseminated infection following intradermal challenge with T. pallidum. Our data argue that, like other lipoprotein lipocalins in dual-membrane bacteria, TP0751 is periplasmic and binds small molecules, and we propose that its IDR facilitates ligand binding by and offloading from the lipocalin domain. The inability of TP0751 to elicit opsonic or protective antibodies is consistent with a subsurface location.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / immunology*
  • Bacterial Vaccines / genetics
  • Bacterial Vaccines / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunization*
  • Lipoproteins / genetics
  • Lipoproteins / immunology*
  • Protein Domains
  • Protein Folding
  • Rabbits
  • Syphilis / genetics
  • Syphilis / immunology*
  • Syphilis / pathology
  • Syphilis / prevention & control
  • Treponema pallidum / genetics
  • Treponema pallidum / immunology*
  • Treponema pallidum / pathogenicity


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Bacterial Vaccines
  • Lipoproteins