It is more than 80 years since Gratia first described ‘a remarkable antagonism between two strains of Escherichia coli’. Shown subsequently to be due to the action of proteins (or peptides) produced by one bacterium to kill closely related species with which it might be cohabiting, such bacteriocins have since been shown to be commonplace in the internecine warfare between bacteria. Bacteriocins have been studied primarily from the twin perspectives of how they shape microbial communities and how they penetrate bacteria to kill them. Here, we review the modes of action of a family of bacteriocins that cleave nucleic acid substrates in E. coli, known collectively as nuclease colicins, and the specific immunity (inhibitor) proteins that colicin-producing organisms make in order to avoid committing suicide. In a process akin to targeting in mitochondria, nuclease colicins engage in a variety of cellular associations in order to translocate their cytotoxic domains through the cell envelope to the cytoplasm. As well as informing on the process itself, the study of nuclease colicin import has also illuminated functional aspects of the host proteins they parasitize. We also review recent studies where nuclease colicins and their immunity proteins have been used as model systems for addressing fundamental problems in protein folding and protein–protein interactions, areas of biophysics that are intimately linked to the role of colicins in bacterial competition and to the import process itself.
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