Conjugation is one of the most important processes that bacteria utilize to spread antibiotic resistance genes among bacterial populations. Interbacterial DNA transfer requires a large double membrane-spanning nanomachine called the type 4 secretion system (T4SS) made up of the inner-membrane complex (IMC), the outer-membrane core complex (OMCC) and the conjugative pilus. The iconic F plasmid-encoded T4SS has been central in understanding conjugation for several decades, however atomic details of its structure are not known. Here, we report the structure of a complete conjugative OMCC encoded by the pED208 plasmid from E. coli, solved by cryo-electron microscopy at 3.3 Å resolution. This 2.1 MDa complex has a unique arrangement with two radial concentric rings, each having a different symmetry eventually contributing to remarkable differences in protein stoichiometry and flexibility in comparison to other OMCCs. Our structure suggests that F-OMCC is a highly dynamic complex, with implications for pilus extension and retraction during conjugation.
© 2021. The Author(s).