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Bacterial α2-macroglobulins: colonization factors acquired by horizontal gene transfer from the metazoan genome?

Aidan Budd1, Stephanie Blandin1, Elena A Levashina2 and Toby J Gibson1*

Author Affiliations

1 European Molecular Biology Laboratory, 69012 Heidelberg, Germany

2 UPR 9022 du CNRS, IBMC, rue René Descartes, F-67087 Strasbourg CEDEX, France

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Genome Biology 2004, 5:R38  doi:10.1186/gb-2004-5-6-r38

Published: 26 May 2004



Invasive bacteria are known to have captured and adapted eukaryotic host genes. They also readily acquire colonizing genes from other bacteria by horizontal gene transfer. Closely related species such as Helicobacter pylori and Helicobacter hepaticus, which exploit different host tissues, share almost none of their colonization genes. The protease inhibitor α2-macroglobulin provides a major metazoan defense against invasive bacteria, trapping attacking proteases required by parasites for successful invasion.


Database searches with metazoan α2-macroglobulin sequences revealed homologous sequences in bacterial proteomes. The bacterial α2-macroglobulin phylogenetic distribution is patchy and violates the vertical descent model. Bacterial α2-macroglobulin genes are found in diverse clades, including purple bacteria (proteobacteria), fusobacteria, spirochetes, bacteroidetes, deinococcids, cyanobacteria, planctomycetes and thermotogae. Most bacterial species with bacterial α2-macroglobulin genes exploit higher eukaryotes (multicellular plants and animals) as hosts. Both pathogenically invasive and saprophytically colonizing species possess bacterial α2-macroglobulins, indicating that bacterial α2-macroglobulin is a colonization rather than a virulence factor.


Metazoan α2-macroglobulins inhibit proteases of pathogens. The bacterial homologs may function in reverse to block host antimicrobial defenses. α2-macroglobulin was probably acquired one or more times from metazoan hosts and has then spread widely through other colonizing bacterial species by more than 10 independent horizontal gene transfers. yfhM-like bacterial α2-macroglobulin genes are often found tightly linked with pbpC, encoding an atypical peptidoglycan transglycosylase, PBP1C, that does not function in vegetative peptidoglycan synthesis. We suggest that YfhM and PBP1C are coupled together as a periplasmic defense and repair system. Bacterial α2-macroglobulins might provide useful targets for enhancing vaccine efficacy in combating infections.