Defects in intracellular trafficking of fungal cell wall synthases lead to aberrant host immune recognition.


The human fungal pathogen, Cryptococcus neoformans, dramatically alters its cell wall, both in size and composition, upon entering the host. This cell wall remodeling is essential for host immune avoidance by this pathogen. In a genetic screen for mutants with changes in their cell wall, we identified a novel protein, Mar1, that controls cell wall organization and immune evasion. Through phenotypic studies of a loss-of-function strain, we have demonstrated that the mar1Δ mutant has an aberrant cell surface and a defect in polysaccharide capsule attachment, resulting in attenuated virulence. Furthermore, the mar1Δ mutant displays increased staining for exposed cell wall chitin and chitosan when the cells are grown in host-like tissue culture conditions. However, HPLC analysis of whole cell walls and RT-PCR analysis of cell wall synthase genes demonstrated that this increased chitin exposure is likely due to decreased levels of glucans and mannans in the outer cell wall layers. We observed that the Mar1 protein differentially localizes to cellular membranes in a condition dependent manner, and we have further shown that the mar1Δ mutant displays defects in intracellular trafficking, resulting in a mislocalization of the β-glucan synthase catalytic subunit, Fks1. These cell surface changes influence the host-pathogen interaction, resulting in increased macrophage activation to microbial challenge in vitro. We established that several host innate immune signaling proteins are required for the observed macrophage activation, including the Card9 and MyD88 adaptor proteins, as well as the Dectin-1 and TLR2 pattern recognition receptors. These studies explore novel mechanisms by which a microbial pathogen regulates its cell surface in response to the host, as well as how dysregulation of this adaptive response leads to defective immune avoidance.





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Publication Info

Esher, Shannon K, Kyla S Ost, Maria A Kohlbrenner, Kaila M Pianalto, Calla L Telzrow, Althea Campuzano, Connie B Nichols, Carol Munro, et al. (2018). Defects in intracellular trafficking of fungal cell wall synthases lead to aberrant host immune recognition. PLoS pathogens, 14(6). p. e1007126. 10.1371/journal.ppat.1007126 Retrieved from

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James Andrew Alspaugh

Professor of Medicine

The focus of my research is to understand the ways in which microorganisms sense and respond to changes in their environment. As microbial pathogens enter the infected host, dramatic genetic and phenotypic events occur that allow these organisms to survive in this harsh environment. We study the model fungal organism Cryptococcus neoformans to define signal transduction pathways associated with systemic fungal diseases. This pathogenic fungus causes lethal infections of the central nervous system in patients with AIDS and other immunological disorders. In addition to being an important pathogen, C. neoformans displays well-characterized and inducible virulence determinants. It is an outstanding system for dissecting the signaling pathways associated with pathogenicity.

The main techniques used in the lab are those of molecular genetics. We are able to readily mutate C. neoformans genes by homologous recombination. Mutant strains with disruptions in targeted genes are then evaluated in vitro for various phenotypes including altered expression of polysaccharide capsule and melanin. The effects of gene disruption on pathogenicity are also evaluated in animal models of cryptococcal disease. Using these techniques, we have identified a novel G-alpha protein/cAMP-dependent signaling pathway associated with mating and pathogenicity.

This research is complemented by the other investigators in the Duke University Mycology Research Unit. The members of this research community are pursuing studies in fungal pathogenesis, identifying novel antifungal drug targets, and studying the ecology of several medically important fungi.

Keywords: Microbial Pathogenesis
Cryptococcus neoformans
Signal transduction
Fungal mating
G proteins

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