The first step in the process of bacterial natural transformation is DNA capture. Although long hypothesized based on genetics and functional experiments, the pilus structure responsible for initial DNA binding had not yet been visualized for Bacillus subtilis. Here, we visualize functional competence pili in Bacillus subtilis using fluorophore-conjugated maleimide labeling in conjunction with epifluorescence microscopy. In strains that produce pilin monomers within tenfold of wild-type levels, the median length of detectable pili is 300 nm. These pili are retractile and associate with DNA. The analysis of pilus distribution at the cell surface reveals that they are predominantly located along the long axis of the cell. The distribution is consistent with localization of proteins associated with subsequent transformation steps, DNA binding, and DNA translocation in the cytosol. These data suggest a distributed model for B. subtilis transformation machinery, in which initial steps of DNA capture occur throughout the long axis of the cell and subsequent steps may also occur away from the cell poles. IMPORTANCE This work provides novel visual evidence for DNA translocation across the cell wall during Bacillus subtilis natural competence, an essential step in the natural transformation process. Our data demonstrate the existence of natural competence-associated retractile pili that can bind exogenous DNA. Furthermore, we show that pilus biogenesis occurs throughout the cell long axis. These data strongly support DNA translocation occurring all along the lateral cell wall during natural competence, wherein pili are produced, bind to free DNA in the extracellular space, and finally retract to pull the bound DNA through the gap in the cell wall created during pilus biogenesis.
Keywords: B. subtilis; competence; natural transformation; pili.