Cable pili are unique peritrichous adherence organelles expressed by certain strains of the opportunistic human pathogen Burkholderia cenocepacia. Cable pili have been proposed to facilitate binding to human epithelial cells and mucin, and may play a role in the ability of B. cenocepacia to colonise the respiratory tract of compromised hosts. In this study, a genetic approach was undertaken to assess the role of cable pili in mediating adherence as well as bacterial cell-cell interactions. The cblA gene, encoding the major pilin subunit, was insertionally inactivated, and the resulting mutant was shown to be blocked in CblA expression and in cable pilus morphogenesis. Although non-piliated, the cblA mutant was not defective in adherence to either porcine mucin or to cultured A549 human respiratory epithelial cells. Microscopic and flow cytometric analyses of B. cenocepacia cultures revealed that cable pilus expression facilitated the formation of diffuse cell networks, whereas disruption of cable pilus biogenesis enhanced autoaggregation and the formation of compact cell aggregates. Autoaggregation was observed both in culture and during B. cenocepacia infection of A549 epithelial cell monolayers. These findings indicate that cable pilus expression plays an important role in mediating B. cenocepacia cell-cell interactions, and that both cable pilus-dependent and cable pilus-independent mechanisms may contribute to B. cenocepacia adherence to cellular and acellular surfaces. © 2003 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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