A pilus (Latin for 'hair'; plural : pili) is a hairlike appendage found on the surface of many bacteria. The terms pilus and fimbria (Latin for 'thread' or 'fiber'; plural: fimbriae) are often used interchangeably, although some researchers reserve the term pilus for the appendage required for bacterial conjugation. All pili are primarily composed of oligomeric pilin proteins.
Pili connect a bacterium to another of its species, or to another bacterium of a different species, and build a bridge between the interior of the cells. This enables the transfer of plasmids between the bacteria. An exchanged plasmid can code for new functions, e.g., antibiotic resistance. The pilus is made out of the protein pilin.
Dozens of these structures can exist on the bacteria. Some bacterial viruses or bacteriophages attach to receptors on sex pili at the start of their reproductive cycle.
Pili are antigenic. They are also fragile and constantly replaced, sometimes with pili of different composition, resulting in altered antigenicity. Specific host responses to old pili structure are not effective on the new structure. Recombination genes of pili code for variable (V) and constant (C) regions of the pili (similar to Immunoglobulin diversity).
Despite its name, the sex pilus is not used for sexual reproduction, and cannot be equated with a penis, although such comparisons are often used to ease understanding.
A pilus is typically 6 to 7 nm in diameter. During bacterial conjugation, a sex pilus emerging from one bacterium ensnares the recipient bacterium, draws it in, and eventually triggers the formation of a mating bridge, which establishes direct contact, merging the cytoplasms of two bacteria via a controlled pore. This pore allows for the transfer of bacterial DNA from the bacteria with the pilus (donor) to the recipient bacteria. Through this mechanism of genetic transformation, advantageous genetic traits can be disseminated amongst a population of bacteria. Not all bacteria have the ability to create sex pili, however sex pili can form between bacteria of different species.
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