UNLABELLED: The capsule from Bacteroides, a common gut symbiont, has long been a model system for studying the molecular mechanisms of host-symbiont interactions. The Bacteroides capsule is thought to consist of an array of phase-variable polysaccharides that give rise to subpopulations with distinct cell surface structures. Here, we report the serendipitous discovery of a previously unknown surface structure in Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron: a surface layer composed of a protein of unknown function, BT1927. BT1927, which is expressed in a phase-variable manner by ~1:1,000 cells in a wild-type culture, forms a hexagonally tessellated surface layer. The BT1927-expressing subpopulation is profoundly resistant to complement-mediated killing, due in part to the BT1927-mediated blockade of C3b deposition. Our results show that the Bacteroides surface structure is capable of a far greater degree of structural variation than previously known, and they suggest that structural variation within a Bacteroides species is important for productive gut colonization.
IMPORTANCE: Many bacterial species elaborate a capsule, a structure that resides outside the cell wall and mediates microbe-microbe and microbe-host interactions. Species of Bacteroides, the most abundant genus in the human gut, produce a capsule that consists of an array of polysaccharides, some of which are known to mediate interactions with the host immune system. Here, we report the discovery of a previously unknown surface structure in Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron. We show that this protein-based structure is expressed by a subset of cells in a population and protects Bacteroides from killing by complement, a component of the innate immune system. This novel surface layer protein is conserved across many species of the genus Bacteroides, suggesting an important role in colonization and host immune modulation.