Most colicins kill cells by membrane pore formation or nuclease activity and, superficially, the mechanisms are similar: receptor binding, translocon recruitment, periplasmic receptor binding and membrane insertion. However, in detail, they employ a wide variety of molecular interactions that reveal a high degree of evolutionary diversification. Group A colicins bind to members of the TolQRAB complex in the periplasm and heterotrimeric complexes of colicin–TolA–TolB have been observed for both ColA and ColE9. ColN, the smallest and simplest pore-forming colicin, binds only to TolA and we show here that it uses the binding site normally used by TolB, effectively preventing formation of the larger complex used by other colicins. ColN binding to TolA was by β-strand addition with a of 1 µM compared with 40 µM for the TolA–TolB interaction. The β-strand addition and ColN activity could be abolished by single proline point mutations in TolA, which each removed one backbone hydrogen bond. By also blocking TolA–TolB binding these point mutations conferred a complete phenotype which destabilized the outer membrane, prevented both ColA and ColE9 activity, and abolished phage protein binding to TolA. These are the only point mutations known to have such pleiotropic effects and showed that the TolA–TolB β-strand addition is essential for Tol function. The formation of this simple binary ColN–TolA complex provided yet more evidence of a distinct translocation route for ColN and may help to explain the unique toxicity of its N-terminal domain.


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