Type IV Pili Are a Critical Virulence Factor in Clinical Isolates of Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus

Christine Hehnly, Aiqin Shi, Paddy Ssentongo, Lijun Zhang, Albert Isaacs, Sarah U. Morton, Nicholas Streck, Petra Erdmann-Gilmore, Igor Tolstoy, R. Reid Townsend, David D. Limbrick, Joseph N. Paulson, Jessica E. Ericson, Michael Y. Galperin, Steven J. Schiff, James R. Broach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Hydrocephalus, the leading indication for childhood neurosurgery worldwide, is particularly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. Hydrocephalus preceded by an infection, or postinfectious hydrocephalus, accounts for up to 60% of hydrocephalus in these areas. Since many children with hydrocephalus suffer poor long-term outcomes despite surgical intervention, prevention of hydrocephalus remains paramount. Our previous studies implicated a novel bacterial pathogen, Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus, as a causal agent of neonatal sepsis and postinfectious hydrocephalus in Uganda. Here, we report the isolation of three P. thiaminolyticus strains, Mbale, Mbale2, and Mbale3, from patients with postinfectious hydrocephalus. We constructed complete genome assemblies of the clinical isolates as well as the nonpathogenic P. thiaminolyticus reference strain and performed comparative genomic and proteomic analyses to identify potential virulence factors. All three isolates carry a unique beta-lactamase gene, and two of the three isolates exhibit resistance in culture to the beta-lactam antibiotics penicillin and ampicillin. In addition, a cluster of genes carried on a mobile genetic element that encodes a putative type IV pilus operon is present in all three clinical isolates but absent in the reference strain. CRISPR-mediated deletion of the gene cluster substantially reduced the virulence of the Mbale strain in mice. Comparative proteogenomic analysis identified various additional potential virulence factors likely acquired on mobile genetic elements in the virulent strains. These results provide insight into the emergence of virulence in P. thiaminolyticus and suggest avenues for the diagnosis and treatment of this novel bacterial pathogen. IMPORTANCE Postinfectious hydrocephalus, a devastating sequela of neonatal infection, is associated with increased childhood mortality and morbidity. A novel bacterial pathogen, Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus, is highly associated with postinfectious hydrocephalus in an African cohort. Whole-genome sequencing, RNA sequencing, and proteomics of clinical isolates and a reference strain in combination with CRISPR editing identified type IV pili as a critical virulence factor for P. thiaminolyticus infection. Acquisition of a type IV pilus-encoding mobile genetic element critically contributed to converting a nonpathogenic strain of P. thiaminolyticus into a pathogen capable of causing devastating diseases. Given the widespread presence of type IV pilus in pathogens, the presence of the type IV pilus operon could serve as a diagnostic and therapeutic target in P. thiaminolyticus and related bacteria.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus
  • postinfectious hydrocephalus
  • type IV pilus
  • virulence factors


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