Structural Modeling of the Treponema pallidum Outer Membrane Protein Repertoire: a Road Map for Deconvolution of Syphilis Pathogenesis and Development of a Syphilis Vaccine

J Bacteriol. 2021 Jul 8;203(15):e0008221. doi: 10.1128/JB.00082-21. Epub 2021 Jul 8.


Treponema pallidum, an obligate human pathogen, has an outer membrane (OM) whose physical properties, ultrastructure, and composition differ markedly from those of phylogenetically distant Gram-negative bacteria. We developed structural models for the outer membrane protein (OMP) repertoire (OMPeome) of T. pallidum Nichols using solved Gram-negative structures, computational tools, and small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) of selected recombinant periplasmic domains. The T. pallidum "OMPeome" harbors two "stand-alone" proteins (BamA and LptD) involved in OM biogenesis and four paralogous families involved in the influx/efflux of small molecules: 8-stranded β-barrels, long-chain-fatty-acid transporters (FadLs), OM factors (OMFs) for efflux pumps, and T. pallidum repeat proteins (Tprs). BamA (TP0326), the central component of a β-barrel assembly machine (BAM)/translocation and assembly module (TAM) hybrid, possesses a highly flexible polypeptide-transport-associated (POTRA) 1-5 arm predicted to interact with TamB (TP0325). TP0515, an LptD ortholog, contains a novel, unstructured C-terminal domain that models inside the β-barrel. T. pallidum has four 8-stranded β-barrels, each containing positively charged extracellular loops that could contribute to pathogenesis. Three of five FadL-like orthologs have a novel α-helical, presumptively periplasmic C-terminal extension. SAXS and structural modeling further supported the bipartite membrane topology and tridomain architecture of full-length members of the Tpr family. T. pallidum's two efflux pumps presumably extrude noxious small molecules via four coexpressed OMFs with variably charged tunnels. For BamA, LptD, and OMFs, we modeled the molecular machines that deliver their substrates into the OM or external milieu. The spirochete's extended families of OM transporters collectively confer a broad capacity for nutrient uptake. The models also furnish a structural road map for vaccine development. IMPORTANCE The unusual outer membrane (OM) of T. pallidum, the syphilis spirochete, is the ultrastructural basis for its well-recognized capacity for invasiveness, immune evasion, and persistence. In recent years, we have made considerable progress in identifying T. pallidum's repertoire of OMPs. Here, we developed three-dimensional (3D) models for the T. pallidum Nichols OMPeome using structural modeling, bioinformatics, and solution scattering. The OM contains three families of OMP transporters, an OMP family involved in the extrusion of noxious molecules, and two "stand-alone" proteins involved in OM biogenesis. This work represents a major advance toward elucidating host-pathogen interactions during syphilis; understanding how T. pallidum, an extreme auxotroph, obtains a wide array of biomolecules from its obligate human host; and developing a vaccine with global efficacy.

Keywords: Treponema pallidum; bioinformatics; outer membrane proteins; structural biology; syphilis; vaccines.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Outer Membrane / chemistry*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane / immunology
  • Bacterial Vaccines / chemistry*
  • Bacterial Vaccines / genetics
  • Bacterial Vaccines / immunology
  • Humans
  • Models, Structural
  • Protein Conformation
  • Syphilis / microbiology
  • Syphilis / prevention & control*
  • Treponema pallidum / chemistry
  • Treponema pallidum / genetics
  • Treponema pallidum / immunology*
  • X-Ray Diffraction


  • Bacterial Vaccines