An immunodominant membrane protein (IMP) of the apple proliferation (AP) phytoplasma was detected in preparations from AP-diseased periwinkle plants using monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies to the AP agent. Following isolation from Western blots and partial sequencing, degenerate oligonucleotides derived from the IMP sequence were used as probes to identify a DNA fragment containing the ORF encoding the IMP. Complete sequencing and subsequent analysis of the cloned DNA fragment revealed the presence of two ORFs, predicted to encode proteins with molecular masses of 25 kDa (P-318A) and 19 kDa (P-318B). Whilst database searches failed to assign a possible function to P-318A, analysis of P-318B predicted an amphiphilic membrane protein with a positively charged N-terminal portion, followed by a hydrophobic segment forming an α-helix, and a hydrophilic C-terminal part located outside of the cell. The amphiphilic nature of P-318B was confirmed by its solubility in Triton X-114. The gene encoding P-318B was expressed in and the resulting protein was used to immunize rabbits. The antiserum obtained reacted specifically with P-318B. The same protein was also detected by an antiserum raised against antigen preparations from APdiseased plants. The P-318B antiserum did not react with antigen preparations from plants infected with the closely related pear decline phytoplasma. However, in Southern hybridization studies, the gene encoding the IMP hybridized to genomic fragments of the pear decline and European stone fruit yellows phytoplasmas. It also showed significant sequence similarity to a gene encoding an antigenic membrane protein of the sweet potato witches' broom phytoplasma, but not to a gene encoding a major immunogenic membrane protein of an aster yellows group phytoplasma. Since it appears that most phytoplasmas possess a major immunogenic membrane protein which may have a function in pathogenesis, this work may be a basis for further studies on fundamental aspects of host-pathogen interactions. It also describes a new approach to obtain suitable immunogens to produce specific antibodies for detection and characterization of the non-culturable phytoplasmas.


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