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.
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