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Is the C-terminal insertional signal in Gram-negative bacterial outer membrane proteins species-specific or not?

Nagarajan Paramasivam, Michael Habeck and Dirk Linke*

Author Affiliations

Department I, Protein Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany

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BMC Genomics 2012, 13:510  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-510

Published: 26 September 2012



In Gram-negative bacteria, the outer membrane is composed of an asymmetric lipid bilayer of phopspholipids and lipopolysaccharides, and the transmembrane proteins that reside in this membrane are almost exclusively β-barrel proteins. These proteins are inserted into the membrane by a highly conserved and essential machinery, the BAM complex. It recognizes its substrates, unfolded outer membrane proteins (OMPs), through a C-terminal motif that has been speculated to be species-specific, based on theoretical and experimental results from only two species, Escherichia coli and Neisseria meningitidis, where it was shown on the basis of individual sequences and motifs that OMPs from the one cannot easily be over expressed in the other, unless the C-terminal motif was adapted. In order to determine whether this species specificity is a general phenomenon, we undertook a large-scale bioinformatics study on all predicted OMPs from 437 fully sequenced proteobacterial strains.


We were able to verify the incompatibility reported between Escherichia coli and Neisseria meningitidis, using clustering techniques based on the pairwise Hellinger distance between sequence spaces for the C-terminal motifs of individual organisms. We noticed that the amino acid position reported to be responsible for this incompatibility between Escherichia coli and Neisseria meningitidis does not play a major role for determining species specificity of OMP recognition by the BAM complex. Instead, we found that the signal is more diffuse, and that for most organism pairs, the difference between the signals is hard to detect. Notable exceptions are the Neisseriales, and Helicobacter spp. For both of these organism groups, we describe the specific sequence requirements that are at the basis of the observed difference.


Based on the finding that the differences between the recognition motifs of almost all organisms are small, we assume that heterologous overexpression of almost all OMPs should be feasible in E. coli and other Gram-negative bacterial model organisms. This is relevant especially for biotechnology applications, where recombinant OMPs are used e.g. for the development of vaccines. For the species in which the motif is significantly different, we identify the residues mainly responsible for this difference that can now be changed in heterologous expression experiments to yield functional proteins.

Outer membrane β-barrel protein biogenesis; Clustering; Hellinger distance; CLANS; Species specificity; Short linear motifs; GLAM2; C-terminal β-strand; BamA; β-barrel assembly machinery; Gram-negative bacteria; Outer membrane; Principal component analysis; Frequency plots