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A deeper look into the pathogen responsible for crown gall disease in plants

Next week's Journal of Biological Chemistry "Paper of the Week" by Wai Mun Huang and colleagues at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and the University of Minnesota reveals new insights into the molecular properties of the rod-shaped soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the pathogen responsible for crown gall disease, a tumor-forming infection in plants, such as tomatoes, walnuts, grapes and beets.

The bacterium is parasitic: It infects its plant host by entering through an open wound, inserts a small segment of its genetic code into the plant's genome, devours energy made by the plant, and forms knobby brown lesions on the plant stem.

Huang's group focused on the pathogen's genetic material. Most bacteria have circular chromosomes. But A. tumefaciens C58, the strain studied by Huang's group, contains one circular chromosome and one linear chromosome (along with two circular plasmids). Huang's research illuminates how this bacterium maintains its linear chromosome.

Huang's team ascertained the DNA sequence for the telomeres, or the protective end caps, of the linear chromosome in A. tumefaciens C58 and confirmed that an enzyme, TelA, actually forms them by making hairpin loops. These end caps are important for maintaining the stability of linear chromosomes. Interestingly, TelA also binds the telomeres. This activity is unique among bacterial enzymes of this kind and may protect the telomeres (which degrade over time and thus lose their ability to preserve DNA), as telomere binding proteins do in eukaryotes.

"Hairpin-ended linear chromosomes and plasmids are found in a number of branches of bacteria and viruses," Huang says. "They are simple and elegant to form and to maintain." But what remains to be understood is why this linear configuration is not more common or even the preferred configuration for bacteria, Huang emphasizes.

From the article: "Linear chromosome generating system of Agrobacterium tumefaciens C58: Protelomerase generates and protects hairpin ends" by Wai Mun Huang, Jeanne DaGloria, Heather Fox, Qiurong Ruan, John Tillou, Ke Shi, Hideki Aihara, John Aron, and Sherwood Casjens

Link to Paper in Press version of article:

Corresponding author: Wai Mun Huang, University of Utah Health Sciences Center, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; email:

About the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The ASBMB is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. Most members teach and conduct research at colleges and universities. Others conduct research in various government laboratories, at nonprofit research institutions and in industry. The Society's student members attend undergraduate or graduate institutions. For more information about ASBMB, visit

Written by Danielle Gutierrez

Angela Hopp | EurekAlert!
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