BACKGROUND - Helicobacter pylori is a gram-negative bacterium that colonizes the human stomach and contributes to the development of gastric cancer and peptic ulcer disease. VacA, a toxin secreted by H. pylori, is comprised of two domains, designated p33 and p55. Analysis of the crystal structure of the p55 domain indicated that its structure is predominantly a right-handed parallel beta-helix, which is a characteristic of autotransporter passenger domains. Substitution mutations of specific amino acids within the p33 domain abrogate VacA activity, but thus far, it has been difficult to identify small inactivating mutations within the p55 domain. Therefore, we hypothesized that large portions of the p55 domain might be non-essential for vacuolating toxin activity. To test this hypothesis, we introduced eight deletion mutations (each corresponding to a single coil within a beta-helical segment spanning VacA amino acids 433-628) into the H. pylori chromosomal vacA gene.
RESULTS - All eight of the mutant VacA proteins were expressed by the corresponding H. pylori mutant strains and underwent proteolytic processing to yield ~85 kDa passenger domains. Three mutant proteins (VacA Delta484-504, Delta511-536, and Delta517-544) were secreted and induced vacuolation of mammalian cells, which indicated that these beta-helical coils were dispensable for vacuolating toxin activity. One mutant protein (VacA Delta433-461) exhibited reduced vacuolating toxin activity compared to wild-type VacA. Other mutant proteins, including those containing deletions near the carboxy-terminal end of the beta-helical region (amino acids Val559-Asn628), exhibited marked defects in secretion and increased susceptibility to proteolytic cleavage by trypsin, which suggested that these proteins were misfolded.
CONCLUSIONS - These results indicate that within the beta-helical segment of the VacA p55 domain, there are regions of plasticity that tolerate alterations without detrimental effects on protein secretion or activity, as well as a carboxy-terminal region in which similar alterations result in protein misfolding and impaired secretion. We propose that non-essential beta-helical coils and a carboxy-terminal beta-helical segment required for proper protein folding and secretion are features shared by numerous autotransporter passenger domains.