General secretion signal for the mycobacterial type VII secretion pathway

Mycobacterial pathogens use specialized type VII secretion (T7S) systems to transport crucial virulence factors across their unusual cell envelope into infected host cells. These virulence factors lack classical secretion signals and the mechanism of substrate recognition is not well understood. Here we demonstrate that the model T7S substrates PE25/PPE41, which form a heterodimer, are targeted to the T7S pathway ESX-5 by a signal located in the C terminus of PE25. Site-directed mutagenesis of residues within this C terminus resulted in the identification of a highly conserved motif, i.e., YxxxD/E, which is required for secretion. This motif was also essential for the secretion of LipY, another ESX-5 substrate. Pathogenic mycobacteria have several different T7S systems and we identified a PE protein that is secreted by the ESX-1 system, which allowed us to compare substrate recognition of these two T7S systems. Surprisingly, this ESX-1 substrate contained a C-terminal signal functionally equivalent to that of PE25. Exchange of these C-terminal secretion signals between the PE proteins restored secretion, but each PE protein remained secreted via its own ESX secretion system, indicating that an additional signal(s) provides system specificity. Remarkably, the YxxxD/E motif was also present in and required for efficient secretion of the ESX-1 substrates CFP-10 and EspB. Therefore, our data show that the YxxxD/E motif is a general secretion signal that is present in all known mycobacterial T7S substrates or substrate complexes.

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