The Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi lacks the machinery necessary for acquiring iron. In fact, B. burgdorferi can grow in the absence of iron. The reason that B. burgdorferi does not need iron is that the spirochete is missing most of the common metalloproteins that require iron to function. For the few metalloproteins that are present, manganese (Mn) may substitute for iron. This raises the question of how B. burgdorferi acquires Mn.
In the March 3 issue of PNAS, Ouyang and colleagues describe a potential Mn transporter BmtA (Borrelia metal transport protein A) encoded in the B. burgdorferi genome. What is their evidence that BmtA is a Mn transporter?
- Analysis of its amino acid sequence indicates that BmtA is a member of the ZIP family of metal transporters. The transporters sit in the membrane and transport metals such as iron, zinc, and manganese across the membrane. Most ZIP family members are predicted to have 8 transmembrane domains with potential metal-binding histidine residues within a "variable region" (see figure below taken from Guerinot 2000) and a signature sequence in the fourth transmembrane domain containing another metal binding histidine. BmtA lacks the his-X-his-X-his (X = any amino acid) metal binding site in the variable region, but it does have the signature sequence.
- When the bmtA gene was knocked out, the mutant B. burgdorferi was still able to grow in culture, but it was unable to accumulate Mn in its cytoplasm. The ability to accumulate Mn was restored when a plasmid expressing bmtA was introduced into the mutant.
To show conclusively that BmtA is a Mn transporter, the authors will need to incorporate purified BmtA into an artificial lipid bilayer (liposome) and demonstrate transport of Mn across the membrane.
The investigators next determined whether BmtA was required for infection of the mouse model of Lyme disease. They found that the bmtA mutant was unable to infect mice when injected into the skin. Infection was assessed by culturing heart, joint, and skin tissue removed 4 weeks after inoculation. The effect of the knockout was striking. None of the 66 organs sampled from the 22 mice inoculated with the bmtA mutant were culture positive. On the other hand, all 21 organs obtained from the 7 mice injected with the wild-type B. burgdorferi strain were culture positive. Infectivity was restored when the bmtA gene was introduced on a plasmid back into the bmtA mutant.
Because the bmtA knockout mutant grew in vitro yet was unable to grow in mice, BmtA must be essential for infectivity. Ouyang et al. presented two possible roles of BmtA in virulence in the Discussion of their paper. First, BmtA may be required for the activity of superoxide dismutase, which in B. burgdorferi is predicted to require Mn rather than iron. Superoxide dismutase detoxifies the reactive oxygen species (ROS) generated by phagocytic cells (neutrophils and macrophages) trying to ward off invading bacteria. Indeed, Ouyang et al. demonstrated that knocking out the bmtA gene rendered B. burgdorferi more sensitive to the oxidizing agent t-butyl hydroperoxide.
Second, Mn may contribute to the regulation of Borrelia genes encoding virulence determinants. The authors present as an example the transcriptional regulator BosR, which they state is a "Mn-dependent Fur homolog." This is incorrect as two different research groups have shown Mn to have no effect or even inhibit the activity of BosR. Nevertheless, there may be other Mn-dependent regulators of borrelial gene expression yet to be discovered.
The authors tout BmtA as a discovery that "may lead to new strategies for thwarting Lyme disease." That's probably true, but a word of caution should be expressed here. Any inhibitor of BmtA that's identified in future studies must have high specificity for the borrelial protein since ZIP family proteins are also found in humans.
Ouyang, Z., He, M., Oman, T., Yang, X., & Norgard, M. (2009). A manganese transporter, BB0219 (BmtA), is required for virulence by the Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (9), 3449-3454 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812999106
Boylan, J.A., Posey, J.E., and Gherardini, F.C. (2003). Borrelia oxidative stress response regulator, BosR: A distinctive Zn-dependent transcriptional activator. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100(20):11684-11689.
Guerinot M.L. (2000). The ZIP family of metal transporters. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1465(1-2):190-198.
Posey, J.E. and Gherardini, F.C. (2000). Lack of a role for iron in the Lyme disease pathogen. Science 288(5471):1651-1653.