I mentioned in a recent post that iron is an essential trace metal that bacteria must acquire from its surroundings. (From that same post you will also recall that the Lyme disease spirochete B. burgdorferi is a rare exception that doesn't need iron.) Much of the iron in our body is trapped within the center of the heme molecule. Heme itself is not readily accessible as it is bound to host proteins such as hemoglobin. Pathogenic bacteria have evolved sophisticated systems to kidnap heme from host proteins and transport them into the cytoplasm. These complex systems, which include secreted degradative enzymes, heme capturing proteins, and transporter proteins that sit in the membrane, have been examined in numerous bacteria. However, the fate of heme after it is acquired by the bacteria is poorly understood. In some cases, the captured heme may be incorporated into bacterial proteins such as cytochromes, which participate in electron transport. In other cases, bacteria may need to extract the iron trapped in the middle of the heme molecule. Some bacteria possess the enzyme heme oxygenase, which extracts the iron caged within heme by the following reaction (adapted from Scheme 1 in Kikuchi et al., 2005):
Unlike its cousin that causes Lyme disease, the spirochete Leptospira requires iron for growth. Ben Adler's group at the Monash University in Australia isolated a Leptospira interrogans mutant with the transposon TnSC189 inserted into hemO, the gene encoding heme oxygenase. The properties of the hemO mutant is described in two papers in the journal Microbes and Infection. The graph below (figure 1B in Murray et al., 2008) shows that growth of the hemO mutant is impaired, although not completely, when hemoglobin is the sole source of iron in the culture medium. The residual growth of the mutant indicates that L. interrogans may possess another activity that extracts iron from heme.
In their follow-up study, Adler's group demonstrated that the hemO gene was necessary for L. interrogans to fully express its virulence in the hamster model of leptospirosis. For this study they used the hemO mutant and a control L. interrogans strain that had the TnSC189 element inserted in a noncoding region, presumably where gene expression would not be affected. The two strains were injected into the abdominal cavities of separate groups of hamsters, which were then monitored for 14 days. Only 8 of 24 hamsters (33%) survived the challenge with the control strain, whereas 20 of 24 (83%) injected with the hemO mutant survived. The difference in survival rates between the two groups was statistically significant (P = 0.001).
Although the hemO mutant was ineffective at killing hamsters, it was still able to colonize the kidneys of most of the animals. Colonization was assessed by culturing kidney or urine in Leptospira growth medium. The mutant was recovered by culturing of kidney or urine from 17 of 20 hamsters that survived the challenge with the hemO mutant and all 3 that died. These results were similar to what was obtained with hamsters inoculated with the control strain, which was recovered from all 8 animals that survived and all 12 that died. (Not all hamsters were examined for colonization.)
Why was the hemO mutant able to colonize the kidney when it was unable to extract iron from heme? Heme is not the only source of iron in the body. The mutant may have captured one of the other forms of iron present in the host. The genome of L. interrogans encodes several homologs of transporters that the spirochete may use to acquire non-heme sources of iron (Louvel et al., 2006). Since these other iron sources are less abundant than heme, the tissue burden (density of bacteria) of the mutant in the kidneys may have been lower than that of the control strain thereby allowing most of the hamsters challenged with the hemO mutant to survive.
One obvious limitation of the study is that the investigators did not attempt to complement the hemO mutation with a wild-type copy of the gene. However, I should point out that currently no plasmid is available that replicates in L. interrogans, rendering complementation of L. interrogans mutations difficult. The researchers did verify that the gene immediately downstream of hemO was still transcribed in the mutant.
This work is significant for the following reasons. First, although there have been two other studies that have examined the role of Leptospira genes in virulence, this study was the most satisfying to read because it was the first to show that a gene encoding a product of known function has a role in the virulence of Leptospira. Second and perhaps more importantly, it is the first to demonstrate the importance of a bacterial heme oxygenase in virulence.
Murray, G., Ellis, K., Lo, M., & Adler, B. (2008). Leptospira interrogans requires a functional heme oxygenase to scavenge iron from hemoglobin Microbes and Infection, 10 (7), 791-797 DOI: 10.1016/j.micinf.2008.04.010
Murray, G., Srikram, A., Henry, R., Puapairoj, A., Sermswan, R., & Adler, B. (2009). Leptospira interrogans requires heme oxygenase for disease pathogenesis Microbes and Infection, 11 (2), 311-314 DOI: 10.1016/j.micinf.2008.11.014
Kikuchi, G., Yoshida, T., and Noguchi, M. (2005). Heme oxygenase and heme degradation. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 338(1):558-567. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2005.08.020
Louvel, H., Bommezzadri S., Zidane, N., Boursaux-Eude, C., Creno, S., Magnier, A., Rouy, Z., Médigue, C., Saint Girons, I., Bouchier, C., and Picardeau, M. (2006). Comparative and functional genomic analyses of iron transport and regulation in Leptospira spp. Journal of Bacteriology 188(22):7893-7904. DOI: 10.1128/JB00711-06