Many bacteria encounter both eukaryotic cells and other bacterial species as a part of their lifestyles. In order to compete and survive, these bacteria have evolved specialized pathways that target these distinct cell types. Type VI secretion systems (T6SSs) are bacterial protein export machines postulated to puncture targeted cells using an apparatus that shares structural similarity to bacteriophage. We investigated the role of the five T6SSs of Burkholderia thailandensis in the defense of the organism against other bacteria and higher organisms. B. thailandensis is a relatively avirulent soil saprophyte that is closely related to the human pathogen B. pseudomallei. Our work uncovered roles for two B. thailandensis T6SSs with specialized functions either in the survival of the organism in a murine host, or against another bacterial cell. We also found that B. thailandensis lacking the bacterial-targeting T6SS could not persist in a mixed biofilm with a competing bacterium. Based on the evolutionary relationship of T6SSs, and our findings that B. thailandensis engages other bacterial species in a T6S-dependent manner, we speculate that this pathway is of general significance to interbacterial interactions in polymicrobial human diseases and the environment.
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