The plant-pathogenic bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. vesicatoria possesses a type III secretion (TTS) system which is encoded by the 23-kb hrp (hypersensitive response and pathogenicity) gene cluster. The TTS system is necessary for pathogenicity in susceptible hosts and induction of the hypersensitive response in resistant plants. At the cell surface, the TTS system is associated with an extracellular filamentous structure, the Hrp pilus, which serves as a conduit for the transfer of bacterial proteins into the plant cell cytosol. The major pilus component, the HrpE pilin, is unique to xanthomonads. Previous work showed that HrpE contains two regions: a hypervariable surface-exposed domain, including the N-terminal secretion signal, and a C-terminal polymerization domain. In this study, the evolutionary rate of the hrpE gene was analyzed. Twenty-one alleles were cloned, sequenced, and compared with five known hrpE alleles. The ratio of synonymous (Ks) and nonsynonymous (Ka) substitution rates shows that parts of the HrpE N terminus are subjected to positive selection and the C terminus is subjected to purifying selection. The trade-off between positive and purifying selection at the very-N terminus allowed us to ascertain the amphipathic α-helical nature of the TTS signal. This is the first report of a surface structure from a plant-pathogenic bacterium that evolved under the constraint of positive selection and hints to the evolutionary adaptation of this extracellular appendage to avoid recognition by the plant defense surveillance system.
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