Cryo-EM structures of pentameric autoinducer-2 exporter from E. coli reveal its transport mechanism

R. Khera, A. R. Mehdipour, J.R. Bolla, J. Kahnt, S. Welsch, U. Ermler, C. Muenke, C.V. Robinson, G. Hummer, H. Xie, H. Michel
EMBO Journal


Bacteria utilize small extracellular molecules to communicate in order to collectively coordinate their behaviors in response to the population density. Autoinducer-2 (AI-2), a universal molecule for both intra- and inter-species communication, is involved in the regulation of biofilm formation, virulence, motility, chemotaxis and antibiotic resistance. While many studies have been devoted to understanding the biosynthesis and sensing of AI-2, very little information is available on its export. The protein TqsA from E. coli, which belongs to a large underexplored membrane transporter family, the AI-2 exporter superfamily, has been shown to export AI-2. Here, we report the cryogenic electron microscopic structures of two AI-2 exporters (TqsA and YdiK) from E. coli at 3.35 Å and 2.80 Å resolutions, respectively. Our structures suggest that the AI-2 exporter exists as a homo-pentameric complex. In silico molecular docking and native mass spectrometry experiments were employed to demonstrate the interaction between AI-2 and TqsA, and the results highlight the functional importance of two helical hairpins in substrate binding. We propose that each monomer works as an independent functional unit utilizing an elevator-type transport mechanism. This study emphasizes the structural distinctiveness of this family of pentameric transporters and provides fundamental insights for the ensuing studies.