A conserved tad pilus promotes Vibrio vulnificus oyster colonization
Vibrio vulnificus has the highest death rate (>35%) and per-case economic burden ($3.3 million) of any foodborne pathogen in the United States. Infections occur via open wounds or following ingestion of contaminated seafood, most infamously oysters. We isolated a 1000th generation descendant, designated NT that exhibited increased biofilm and aggregate formation relative to its parent. We identified two significant causal changes underlying these phenotypes. First, the entire 24-kb capsular polysaccharide biosynthesis locus, which is essential for virulence but inhibits biofilm formation, had been purged from the genome. However, NT formed more extensive biofilms and aggregates than a defined cps mutant, suggesting that additional factor(s) contributed to its phenotypes. Second, the expression of a tight adherence (tad) pilus locus was elevated in NT. Deletion of the associated pilin (flp) decreased NT biofilm and aggregate formation. Furthermore, NTΔflp strains were deficient relative to NT in an oyster colonization model, demonstrating a positive correlation between the biofilm and aggregation phenotypes associated with Tad pilus production and efficient bacterial retention by feeding oysters. Despite being widely distributed in the Vibrionaceae, this is the first demonstration of a bona fide physiological role for a Tad pilus in this bacterial family.