Sunday, November 28, 2010

How bacteria sort their lipoproteins (Lol!)

Bacterial lipoproteins are proteins with covalently-attached lipid molecules that anchor the protein to the cytoplasmic or outer membrane.  The lipid molecules are attached to the cysteine located at the amino terminus of the lipoprotein.  The lipoprotein's protein component, being hydrophilic (water-loving), sticks out from the membrane. Different bacterial lipoproteins participate in a variety of functions, including transport of molecules, stabilization of the cell wall, signal transduction, motility, and interaction with host molecules.

The Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi is exceptional in that a number of different lipoproteins have been found on its surface.  Most other bacteria lack (or have few) surface-exposed lipoproteins.  To give one example, the figure below shows the arrangement of lipoproteins in the cell envelope of E. coli, home to roughly 90 lipoproteins, none known to be displayed on the surface.  Lipoproteins are depicted as colored ovals with the attached squiggles representing the lipid molecules. To perform their functions properly, some lipoproteins must be anchored to the outer leaflet of the inner membrane (blue ovals) whereas the rest must be anchored to the inner leaflet of the outer membrane (red ovals).  In both cases, the protein component of the lipoprotein protrudes into the periplasm.  The figure also shows the other major category of membrane proteins, the integral membrane proteins, which are embedded in the membrane.  There are also proteins that reside in the periplasm, which are not depicted in the figure.

In this post I will describe how lipoproteins are brought to their correct location in the bacterial envelope.  I will first describe how lipoproteins are sorted in E. coli since that's where most of the earlier work was conducted. Since many other diderms (bacteria having two membranes) have homologs of the proteins used by E. coli to export and sort lipoproteins, E. coli is a good model for studying localization of lipoproteins.  Monoderm bacteria also have lipoproteins, but since they have only one membrane, they don't need to worry about sorting lipoproteins.  (I will save the explanation of how lipoproteins get to the bacterial surface for a future post.)

Most proteins to be exported out of the cytoplasm are marked with an amino-terminal signal peptide ≈20 amino acids in length.  The sequences of the signal peptides (plus five additional amino acid residues) from two E. coli lipoproteins are shown below.  A cytoplasmic membrane protein complex called the Sec translocon transfers proteins harboring the signal peptide to the periplasm, where the signal peptide is lopped off by one of two signal peptidases.  Signal peptidase I cleaves off the signal peptide from nonlipoproteins (such as periplasmic or transmembrane outer membrane proteins), and signal peptidase II slices off the signal peptide from lipoproteins.

All lipoproteins harbor a short sequence called a "lipobox" at the end of the signal peptide (underlined in sequences below).  The lipobox consensus sequence  is -(leu, ala, val)-4-leu-3-(ala, ser)-2-(gly, ala)-1↓cys+1, with the arrow specifying the cleavage site for signal peptidase II and the subscripts denoting positions relative to the cleavage site.

E. coli Braun's lipoprotein (OM) MKATKLVLGAVILGSTLLAGCSSNA...

(IM, inner membrane; OM, outer membrane)

The lipobox is recognized by the inner membrane enzyme phosphatidylglycerol:prolipoprotein diacylglyceryl transferase (Lgt).  Before the signal peptide is removed, Lgt attaches diacylglycerol to the sulfhydryl (-SH) of the lipobox cysteine.  After the signal peptide is cleaved off by signal peptidase II, another inner membrane enzyme, apolipoprotein N-acyltransferase (Lnt), attaches a fatty acid molecule to the newly exposed amino (-NH3) group of the cysteine.  Only exported proteins with lipoboxes become lipidated.  The lipoprotein remains associated with the inner membrane throughout these processing steps.

The machinery responsible for sorting lipoproteins to the outer membrane is the LolCDE protein complex, a type of ABC transporter that sits in the inner membrane.  Lol stands for lipoprotein outer membrane localization.  LolCDE recognizes the lipidated cysteine at the amino terminus of lipoproteins.  LolCDE loads lipoproteins onto the periplasmic protein LolA, which ferries lipoproteins to the LolB receptor, a lipoprotein that protrudes from the periplasmic face of the outer membrane.  After capturing the lipoprotein from LolA, LolB anchors the lipoprotein into the periplasmic layer of the outer membrane.

from figure 3 of Tokuda and Matsuyama (2004)

How does LolCDE know which lipoproteins are supposed to be delivered to the outer membrane and which need to stranded in the inner membrane?  For E. coli and other members of the Enterobacteriaceae family of bacteria, the answer is fairly simple.  Lipoproteins with aspartate at the +2 position (which follows the lipidated cysteine) remain in the inner membrane.

How does the +2 aspartate prevent transfer of lipoproteins to the outer membrane?  It turns out that LolCDE doesn't directly sense the amino acid at the +2 position.  Instead, the abundant membrane phospholipid phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) is thought to interfere with LolCDE recognition of the lipidated cysteine when asparatate is at the +2 position.  When the side chain carboxyl group (-COO-) of the +2 aspartate interacts electrostatically with the positively-charged head group of PE, the fatty acids of PE become perfectly positioned to form hydrogen bonds with the lipid molecules attached to the cysteine (see figure below).  LolCDE is unable to recognize the amino-terminal cysteine associated with five fatty acid groups (three covalently bound to the cysteine and two from PE).  Thus asparatate, when it follows the cysteine, acts indirectly as a Lol avoidance signal.  The amino acid at the +3 position can also influence the Lol avoidance signal.  For example, negatively-charged amino acids (aspartate and glutamate) at the +3 position strengthen the +2 aspartate Lol avoidance signal by stabilizing the complex between phosphotidylethanolamine and the +2 aspartate (see figure below).

Modified from figure 6 of Tokuda and Matsuyama (2004)

Additional studies with engineered lipoproteins have shown that phenylalanine, tryptophan, tyrosine, lysine, and proline, although rarely found in lipoproteins at the +2 position, can also serve as inner membrane retention signals when asparagine is at the +3 position.  Since none of these are negatively-charged amino acids, the mechanism for avoiding LolCDE must differ from those lipoproteins having aspartate at the +2 position.

The nature of the sorting signal differs for bacteria that are not members of Enterobacteriaceae.  For example, the three amino acids at positions +2 through +4 dictate whether lipoproteins will remain in the inner membrane of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.  For the spirochete B. burgdorferi, a clear rule has yet to emerge from the few studies that have been done.  What can be said is that negatively-charged amino acids (aspartate and glutamate) placed within the first several amino acids following the lipidated cysteine sometimes allows the lipoprotein to remain in the membrane.  Whether the negatively-charged amino acid functions as an inner membrane retention signal depends on which amino acids are surrounding it.  It is not yet possible to simply look at the amino-terminal sequence of B. burgdorferi lipoproteins and confidently predict in which membrane they will be found.

ResearchBlogging.orgAlthough the "+2/+3/+4 rule" is useful for predicting whether a newly discovered lipoprotein will be found in the inner or outer membrane, it may not give the complete picture of all of a lipoprotein's features that govern its localization.  The rules for sorting lipoproteins were worked out primarily by examining the localization of engineered fusion proteins consisting of the amino termini of lipoproteins (signal peptide with lipobox plus the first several amino acids following the lipobox cysteine) fused to unrelated reporter proteins such as red fluorescent protein (RFP) from corals.  For example, placing asp at the +2 position of such a fusion protein would cause RFP to be retained in the inner membrane.  Changing the +2 amino acid to serine would cause RFP to be transported to the outer membrane.  However, localization of a full-length lipoprotein may not be altered by simply changing its +2 amino acid from aspartate to another amino acid or vice versa.  This indicates that the rest of the lipoprotein, the part that's removed when reporters are used, also influences the localization of lipoproteins.


TOKUDA, H. (2009). Biogenesis of outer membranes in Gram-negative bacteria. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 73 (3), 465-473 DOI: 10.1271/bbb.80778

TOKUDA, H. (2004). Sorting of lipoproteins to the outer membrane in E. coli. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Cell Research, 1693 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbamcr.2004.02.005

Schulze, R., & Zückert, W. (2006). Borrelia burgdorferi lipoproteins are secreted to the outer surface by default. Molecular Microbiology, 59 (5), 1473-1484 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.2006.05039.x

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The major outer membrane protein of Leptospira interrogans: Not essential for infection?

Because leptospirosis is a potentially fatal disease, it would be worthwhile to figure out which of the many genes on the two chromosomes of Leptospira express products that are essential for infection.

The lipoprotein LipL32 is the most abundant outer membrane protein found in the outer membrane of pathogenic species of Leptosipra. It's been assumed that LipL32 plays an important role in infections for the following reasons:
  • LipL32 is found only in pathogenic species of Leptospira. Nonpathogenic species such as L. biflexa lack the gene encoding LipL32.
  • LipL32 peaks out on the surface of Leptospira, where it is available to interact directly with host molecules.
  • LipL32 binds (at least weakly) to several components of the extracellular matrix.
  • Leptospirosis patients generate a strong antibody response against LipL32.
  • The protein sequence of LipL32 among different species of Leptospira is almost identical.
  • A lot of metabolic energy must be expended to make the large amounts of LipL32 found in the spirochete.
Although a lipL32 knockout mutant would help scientists figure out whether LipL32 plays an essential role in pathogenesis, targeted gene disruptions are extremely difficult with pathogenic Leptospira.  Fortunately, Ben Adler's group at Monash University obtained an insertion mutation in the lipL32 gene of L. interrogans by transposon mutagenesis.  This gave the Australians and their collaborators an opportunity to test the role of LipL32 in causing lethal infections in the hamster model of leptospirosis.  They first confirmed that the lipL32 mutant failed to express LipL32 by Western blotting the mutant with LipL32 antiserum.  I am showing the Coomassie-blue stained protein gel of the whole-cell lysate below so that you can appreciate the abundance of LipL32.  It is the most intensely stained band in the control L. interrogans strain, which has its lipL32 gene intact.

Whole-cell lysates of the L. interrogans lipL32 mutant (M933) and a control strain with the transposon in an intergenic region (M777) were run into SDS-acylamide gels and stained (panel A) or analyzed by Western blotting with LipL32 antiserum (panel B).  The M777 strain was demonstrated in an earlier study to be lethal for hamsters.  (Figure 1 from Murray et al., 2009.)

The survival curves show that the L. interrogans lipL32 mutant was just as lethal to hamsters as the parent L. interrogans with its lipL32 gene intact, irrespective of the infection route.  Hence, lipL32 is not necessary for lethal infections of hamsters, at least under the conditions used in this study.

Panel A: Groups of 8 hamsters were inoculated with 1,000 leptospires into the abdominal cavity.  Panel B:  Groups of 10 hamsters were inoculated with 106 leptospires dropped into the eye.  The slight difference in the survival curves was not statistically significant.  (Figure 5 from Murray et al., 2009)

Rats are the natural reservoir hosts of L. interrogans.  They can carry the spirochete for years in their kidney tubules without showing any signs of illness.  LipL32 could have a role in chronic infections.  The investigators therefore tested the ability of the lipL32 mutant to establish a chronic infection in laboratory rats.  They found that the lipL32 mutant (M933) was able to colonize the rat kidneys as well as the control M777 strain.  Kidneys from all 8 rats inoculated with the lipL32 mutant were culture positive.

At first glance it's surprising that lipL32 was not required for acute or chronic infection.  The authors pointed out that the function of LipL32 could be copied by other proteins found on the surface of Leptospira.  However, the study could have been strengthened by making two changes.  First, since the authors were trying to determine whether lipL32 was necessary for chronic infection, the rats should have been allowed to live for at least a few months before their kidneys were cultured.  Instead, the infection was allowed to proceed for only 15 days before the rats were sacrificed.  Second, they should have measured the bacterial load in the rat kidneys, either by plating serial dilutions of the kidney homogenates for colonies (although I don't know if this is feasible for Leptospira) or by quantitative PCR.  Clearly, more work needs to be done before anyone can conclude that LipL32 is not essential for chronic infection.

Featured paper

Murray G.L., Srikram, A., Hoke, D.E., Wunder Jr., E.A., Henry, R., Lo, M., Zhang, K., Sermswan, R.W., Ko, A.I., and Adler, B. (March 2009).  Major surface protein LipL32 is not required for either acute or chronic infection with Leptospira interrogansInfection and Immunity 77(3):952-958.  DOI: 10.1128/IAI.01370-08

Related posts

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Antigen presentation in the bloodstream: How invariant NKT cells are activated by Lyme disease spirochetes

The spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi is the tick-borne agent of Lyme disease, which affects the joints, nervous system, and heart.  After being deposited into the skin by an infected tick, the spirochete must enter the bloodstream so that it can circulate in the blood to gain access to its target organs.

The host doesn't sit idly as B. burgdorferi establishes an infection.  Invariant natural killer (iNKT) cells are one of the tools deployed by the immune system in its battle against the Lyme spirochetes.  Scientists know this because B. burgdorferi-infected mice lacking iNKT cells ended up with more spirochetes in their tissues and greater joint swelling than mice with a complete immune system.2

iNKT cells are an odd type of T cell.  Like other T cells, iNKT cells have a T cell receptor (TCR), yet they also express protein markers used to identify natural killer (NK) cells.  What makes the iNKT cell invariant is its TCR α chain, which comes only in the version dubbed Vα14 in mice and Vα24 in humans.  Even the β chain of the TCR of iNKT cells is restricted to three types in mice and just one in humans.  The lack of variation is unusual because the α and β TCR chains of conventional αβ T cells come in many forms in each individual, resulting in millions of varieties of TCRs.  This enables conventional αβ T cells to recognize a wide range of microbial peptide antigens when displayed by an MHC molecule on the surface of an antigen-presenting cell (see figure below).  In contrast, the TCRs of iNKT cells recognize a limited set of glycolipids displayed by the antigen-presenting cell's CD1d molecule, which structurally resembles MHC.  So far these glycolipids have been found only in Sphingomonas and B. burgdorferi.

Antigen recognition by T cells.  The "X" represents variable T cell receptor chains.
Figure 1 from ref. 3.
The structures of the B. burgdorferi glycolipids recognized by iNKT cells are shown below.  BbGL-IIc is recognized by mouse iNKT cells, and BbGL-IIf reacts with human iNKT cells.4
Structures of B. burgdorferi glycolipid antigens recognized by iNKT cells.  Figure 3d from ref. 3.

iNKT cells are activated when their TCR binds to BbGL-II complexed with CD1d.4  The activated iNKT cells secrete cytokines that elicit the appropriate immune response against the spirochetes.  How these cytokines promote killing of B. burgdorferi remains unknown.

To view the process of iNKT cell activation, scientists have recently obtained video footage of the early stages of the immune response to Borrelia burgdorferi circulating in the bloodstream of mice.1  The study by Lee et al., which appeared in the April issue of Nature Immunology, complements two earlier studies that revealed how the Lyme disease spirochete escapes from the bloodstream of mice to invade the surrounding tissues.5,6

The investigators employed fluorescence video microscopy to watch the immune cells in action following injection of an engineered B. burgdorferi strain expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the bloodstream.  Although the spleen is better known for filtering bloodstream pathogens, the liver was selected for observation because iNKT cells make up 30% of the T cells in the liver.  In contrast, iNKT cells represent only 2.5% of T cells in the spleen.  Moreover, mice missing their spleen were able to limit B. burgdorferi infection as well as mice having a spleen, suggesting that the spleen is not critical in fighting bloodstream B. burgdorferi.

iNKT cells reside in the liver's sinusoids, which are the specialized capillaries that carry blood through the liver.  Similar to what other investigators have observed, the authors saw iNKT cells creeping along the inner surface of the liver sinusoids in healthy mice (see video below).

iNKT cells crawling within the liver sinusoids of a mouse genetically altered to express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in iNKT cells.  The iNKT cells glow bright green.  The elapsed time is shown at the top right.  Video 2 from ref. 1.

The investigators wanted to figure out which of the antigen-presenting cells found in the liver presented borrelial glycolipid to iNKT cells.  The answer?  After the spirochetes were injected into the bloodstream, they were quickly captured by Kupffer cells, the specialized blood-filtering macrophages that also reside in the liver sinusoids (see figure below).  Unlike iNKT cells, Kupffer cell remained stationary.

Capture of fluorescent B. burgdorferi (thin green bodies) by Kupffer cells (arrowhead).  Kupffer cells are stained red.  B. burgdorferi that avoided capture can be seen bound to the endothelium, trying to escape from the bloodstream into the liver tissue (arrow).  Figure 2e from ref. 1.

During the next several hours, the captured spirochetes were engulfed and broken up by the Kupffer cells so that BbGL-II could be loaded onto CD1d and displayed on the cell surface.  At 8 hours post injection, iNKT cells started to cluster and form stable contacts with Kupffer cells.  The iNKT cells were attracted to Kupffer cells churning out the chemokine CXCL9, a potent iNKT cell attractant.  The evidence for this was that injection of antibodies against the CXCL9 receptor, located on the iNKT cell surface, blocked clustering of iNKT cells.  Interaction of the Kupffer and iNKT cells was accompanied by increased blood and liver levels of the cytokine IFN-γ (interferon-gamma), a sign that the iNKT cells were being activated.

Left panel:  Liver 24 hours after injection of a GFP+ strain of B. burgdorferi into the bloodstream of a mouse.  Arrows indicate spirochetes (thin green bodies) that were not captured.  Kupffer cells are stained a red. The iNKT cells are the large bright green bodies.  The bright iNKT clusters overwhelm the faint red Kupffer cells, which are difficult to see.  Right panel:  To obtain a more convincing image showing contact between Kupffer cells and iNKT cells, a 3D reconstruction of the optical sections through the liver was performed.  Rotation of the image reveals interactions between Kupffer and iNKT cells.

Not all spirochetes were captured.  The investigators saw B. burgdorferi escaping from the sinusoids into the surrounding liver tissue even as other spirochetes were trapped by nearby Kupffer cells (see figures above).  Spirochetes circulating throughout the host probably escaped into other organs in the same manner.  Indeed, large amounts of  B. burgdorferi DNA were detected by PCR in several organs, including the liver, three days after the spirochetes were injected.  Although one doesn't usually think about the effects of Lyme disease on the liver, the authors pointed out that a mild hepatitis is common in Lyme disease patients.  In one prospective study, 40% of Lyme disease patients had at least one liver test abnormality.7

ResearchBlogging.orgBy now you may be wondering why the liver would devote such a high percentage of its T cells towards recognizing glycolipids that aren't found on most bacteria.  One answer is that microbes lacking the proper glycolipids may activate iNKT cells indirectly.3  For example, Salmonella typhimurium uses its LPS to coax antigen-presenting cells into making an endogenous glycolipid that gets presented to the iNKT cell by CD1d.8  It is also possible that glycolipids that are recognized by iNKT cells are present in other bacteria but are yet to be discovered.

Featured paper

1. Lee, W.Y., Moriarty, T.J., Wong, C.H.Y., Zhou, H., Strieter, R.M., van Rooijen, N., Chaconas, G., & Kubes, P. (2010). An intravascular immune response to Borrelia burgdorferi involves Kupffer cells and iNKT cells Nature Immunology, 11 (4), 295-302 DOI: 10.1038/ni.1855

Other references

2.  Tupin, E., Benhnia, M.R., Kinjo, Y., Patsey, R., Lena, C.J., Haller, M.C., Caimano, M.J., Imamura, M., Wong, C., Crotty, S., Radolf, J.D., Sellati, T.J., and Kronenberg, M. (2008).  NKT cells prevent chronic joint inflammation after infection with Borrelia burgdorferiProc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105(50):19863-19868.  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810519105

3.  Tupin, E., Kinjo, Y., and Kronenberg, M. (2007).  The unique role of natural killer T cells in the response to microorganisms.  Nature Reviews Microbiology 5(6):405-417.  DOI: 10.1038/nrmicro1657

4.  Kinjo, J., Tupin, E., Wu, D., Fujio, M., Garcia-Navarro, R., Benhnia, M. R., Zajonc, D.M., Ben-Menachem, G., Ainge, G.D., Painter, G.F., Khurana, A., Hoebe, K., Behar, S.M., Beutler, B., Wilson, I.A., Tsuji, M., Sellati, T.J., Wong, C., and Kronenberg, M. (2006).  Nature Immunology 7(9):978-986.  DOI: 10.1038/ni1380

5.  Moriarty, T.J., Norman, M.U., Colarusso, P., Bankhead, T., Kubes, P., and Chaconas, G. (June 20, 2008).  Real-time high resolution 3D imaging of the Lyme disease spirochete adhering to and escaping from the vasculature of a living host.  PLoS Pathogens 4(6):e1000090.  DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000090

6. Norman, M.U., Moriarty, T.J., Dresser, A.R., Millen, B., Kubes, P., and Chaconas, G. (October 3, 2008). Molecular mechanisms involved in vascular interactions of the Lyme disease pathogen in a living host.  PLoS Pathogens 4(10):e1000169.  DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000169

7.  Horowitz, H.W.,  Dworkin, B., Forseter, G., Nadelman, R.B., Connolly, C., Luciano, B.B., Nowakowski, J., O'Brien, T.A., Calmann, M., Wormser, G.P. (June 1996).  Liver function in early Lyme disease.  Hepatology 23(6):1412-1417.  DOI: 10.1002/hep.510230617

8.  Mattner J., DeBord, K.L., Ismail, N., Goff, R.D., Cantu III, C., Zhou, D., Saint Mezard, P., Wang, V., Gao, Y., Yin, N, Hoebe, K., Schneewind, O., Walker, D., Beutler, B., Teyton, L, Savage, P.B., and Bendelac, A. (March 24, 2005).  Exogenous and endogenous glycolipid antigens activate NKT cells during microbial infections.  Nature 434(7032):525-529.  DOI: 10.1038/nature03408

Related posts

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Congenital syphilis, upward trend (again) in the United States

Syphilis can be deadly if passed from an infected mother to her unborn child. The most recent CDC data show that 6.5% of U.S. infants with congenital syphilis (CS) in 2008 were stillborn or died within 30 days of birth.1

Newborns with CS who are destined to live begin to show signs of disease within the first few weeks of life.  The main features of CS in early infancy include fever, skin lesions, enlarged liver and spleen, and a chronic runny nose ("snuffles"), which may be tinged with blood.  Bone lesions may lead to Parrot's pseudoparalysis, a condition so painful that the infant will refuse to move the affected extremities.  Ongoing damage to bony tissue may later lead to childhood deformities including saddle nose, sabre shins, and Hutchinson incisors (notched central incisors).  Other late signs of CS include inflammation of the cornea and sudden hearing loss.

The lesions and deformities associated with congenital syphilis are sparked by Treponema pallidum, a spirochete that can cross the placenta from the mother's bloodstream.  The probability of transmission to the fetus depends on how long the mother has been infected with T. pallidum.  The risk of transmission is lower in mothers at later stages of syphilis.  After crossing the placenta, the spirochete invades the fetal organs.  The continuing immune response to persistent T. pallidum infection causes the damage seen in CS.  Early treatment of the mother with penicillin, at least 30 days before delivery, is essential to stop the disease.

The rate of congenital syphilis in the United States has started to creep back up after plummeting over two decades.1  The incidence of congenital syphilis has gone up from 8.2 cases per 100,000 live births in 2005 to 10.1 in 2008 with most of the increase having occurred in the South.  CS rates in infants born to black mothers have gone up from 26.6 in 2005 to 34.6 per 100,000 live births in 2008 and now account for half of all CS cases.  Since CS is transmitted from mothers with syphilis, CS rates have historically tracked the combined primary and secondary syphilis rate seen in women, which has also started to climb (see figure below).  What factors account for the increased incidence of syphilis?  In one Alabama county, increased syphilis rates in black women were linked to crack cocaine use and the exchange of sex for money or drugs.2  Although more studies are needed to determine whether the same factors are linked to syphilis throughout the South, it should be pointed out that the same factors were associated with the previous syphilis epidemic that peaked in the early 1990s, when there were several thousand yearly cases of CS as opposed to the several hundred seen today.3

Figure from CDC1

Now that the upward trend in the CS rate has been recognized, public health authorities in partnership with community-based groups must allocate some of their scarce resources to reverse the trend.  With prenatal care and prompt treatment, congenital syphilis can be prevented.

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (April 16, 2010). Congenital syphilis - United States, 2003-2008. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 59(14):413-417.  link

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (May 8, 2009).  Primary and secondary syphilis - Jefferson County, Alabama, 2002-2007.  MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 58(17):463-467.  link

3. Nakashima, A.K., Rolfs, R.T., Flock, M.L., Kilmarx, P., and Greenspan, J.R. (Jan-Feb 1996). Epidemiology of syphilis in the United States, 1941-1993.  Sexually Transmitted Diseases 23(1):16-23.  PMID: 8801638

Friday, April 30, 2010

Healthy human carriers of the spirochete Leptospira in the Peruvian Amazon

The spirochete Leptospira is the agent of leptospirosis, a zoonosis that primarily burdens tropical regions of the world.  Moist conditions promote the survival of Leptospira in soil and fresh water. Although Leptospira could survive out in wet environments if they had to, they thrive in the kidneys of rats and other maintenance hosts, where they form dense masses lining the inner surface of the kidney tubules.  The spirochetes spill into the urine that forms in the tubules, which drain into the bladder.  Animals colonized by their "preferred" serovar (immune type) shed Leptospira throughout their lives without ever showing signs of illness.  The tainted urine ends up contaminating soil and water with infectious Leptospira.

Humans aren't regarded as long-term carriers of Leptospira.  Rather, they are deemed "accidental" (incidental) hosts who may suffer serious complications of acute disease, including kidney failure and lung hemorrhage.  Humans get infected when they come into contact with contaminated water or soil or following direct exposure to infectious animal urine or tissue.  Leptospira enters through cuts in the skin or mucous membranes.  From there the motile spirochete spreads via the bloodstream and invades internal organs, including the kidneys, where they remain for the duration of the disease.  Patients typically stop releasing Leptospira into their urine after they recover from the illness, presumably because the spirochetes have been eliminated from their kidneys.  However, there have been a few reports of Leptospira excreted in urine months or even years following recovery from leptospirosis.  The truth is that no one has ever done a systematic study to determine how common the chronic carrier state is in humans.

A team of investigators from the United States and Peru set out to find long-term carriers of Leptospira.  Their study is described in the February issue of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.  The authors examined the inhabitants of a rural Amazon village of Padrecocha near the city of Iquitos, Peru, where leptospirosis is endemic. The tropical climate is ideal for the survival of Leptospira in the moist environment favored by the spirochete.  Indeed, in an earlier study the authors detected infectious strains of Leptospira in the streams and wells serving the village.  Cattle, pigs, dogs, and rats, all potential carriers, freely roam the area.

Ganoza and colleagues wanted to determine what percentage of the villagers were chronic carriers of Leptospira.  They first identified villagers who were not recently infected with Leptospira.  Out of the 314 healthy villagers enrolled in the study, 102 (32.5%) had no clinical or serological evidence of recent infection; they did not recall experiencing a fever during the previous year (fever is a typical symptom of leptospirosis), and they tested negative for newly-acquired Leptospira infection by IgM ELISA.

The investigators next identified those whose kidney were colonized by Leptospira among the 102 who were not newly infected.  Since Leptospira living in the kidney tubules are shed into urine, they screened urine samples by nested PCR using primers targeting the 16S rRNA gene of Leptospira.  To exclude false-positive signals, the investigators screened the PCR-generated DNA (amplicon) by dot blot analysis with a Leptospira 16S rRNA probe.  Many false positive signals occurred because their Leptospira PCR primers also hybridized to the 16S rRNA gene from Atopobium vaginae, a bacterium recently found to be associated with vaginosis

When urine from the 102 "long-term" healthy individuals was screened, Leptospira DNA was found in 6 (5.9%).  Sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene revealed that the carriers were colonized with L. interrogans, L. fainei, and L. licerasiae.  So it turns out that the asymptomatic carrier state is not as rare as initially believed.  More than 1 in 20 individuals who had been healthy for at least a year were colonized with Leptospira in their kidneys.

The investigators found seven additional individuals colonized with Leptospira by screening urine from the other 212 individuals in the study.  Overall the percentage of shedders of Leptospira among all healthy individuals, irrespective of when they were infected, was 4.1% (13/314).  The concentration of Leptospira in the urine of shedders, as measured by quantitative PCR, was low, in the 102-104/ml range.  In contrast, rats may shed up to 108 spirochetes/ml!

The study unearthed another surprise.  All 13 individuals who were shedding Leptospira at the time of the study (including the 6 chronic carriers) were women.  The proportion of women with Leptospira DNA in their urine (13/13, 100%) was significantly higher than the proportion of women in the group lacking detectable DNA in their urine (199/301, 66%, p = 0.011).  This result raises the possibility that women are more likely to become persistent carriers than men.  However, the authors pointed out that men were underrepresented in the study sample.  Less than one third of the villagers enrolled in the study were men.  Most of the other men were away at work when the authors were recruiting people for the study.  Agricultural occupations, which bring workers into contact with environmental sources of Leptospira, are well-known risk factors for infection by the spirochete in endemic areas.  Hence, male shedders of Leptospira may have been inadvertently excluded from the study.

Another surprising result was that sera from all six chronic carriers failed to agglutinate Leptospira by MAT (microscopic agglutination test), a standard serological test used to check for Leptospira infection whether it occurred recently or years ago.  The authors mentioned that this was entirely consistent with old studies failing to detect agglutinating antibodies in the sera of some maintenance host animals excreting Leptospira. However, another possibility is that the "chronic human carriers" may have actually acquired asymptomatic infections very recently.  They could have been enrolled in the study before the anti-Leptospira IgM and agglutinating antibodies had enough time the accumulate to the cut-off values selected for the IgM ELISA and MAT, respectively.  Although the authors discounted the possibility of newly acquired asymptomatic infections accounting for the seronegativity of the shedders, they recommended a longitudinal study to clarify the issue.

The authors posed several questions raised by their study:
  • Does persistent Leptospira infection of human kidneys have any subtle effect on their function? If so, is antibiotic treatment warranted?
  • Are some strains of Leptospira more likely than others to persistently infect the kidneys of humans?  .
  • Can persistent human shedders be a source of transmission of Leptospira to other humans (and animals)?
Future studies will need to include urine cultures to demonstrate that Leptospira shed by human carriers are alive.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn conclusion, this is an important study that challenges the simplistic notion that humans are incidental hosts of Leptospira.  The reality appears to be more complicated.

Featured paper

Ganoza, C.A., Matthias, M.A., Saito, M., Cespedes, M., Gotuzzo, E., & Vinetz, J.M. (2010). Asymptomatic renal colonization of humans in the Peruvian Amazon by Leptospira. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0000612

Related paper

Ganoza, C.A., Matthias, M.A., Collins-Richards, D., Brouwer, K.C., Cunningham, C.B., Segura, E.R., Gilman, R.H., Gotuzzo, E., & Vinetz, J.M. (2006). Determining risk for severe leptospirosis by molecular analysis of environmental surface waters for pathogenic Leptospira. PLoS Medicine, 3 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0030308

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A fresh approach towards a Lyme disease vaccine: targeting the tick

We tend to focus on the pathogen when thinking about how the immune system responds to tick-borne infections.  Ticks also provoke an immune response, even those that don't harbor any infectious agent.  Animals that are repeatedly bitten by ticks will eventually develop immunity to the tick.  There's even a commercial tick vaccine called TickGARD, which protects cattle against infestation by the tick Boophilus microplus.  TickGARD is formulated with a protein located in the midgut of B. microplus.

Animals that are immune to ticks also resist infection by some tick-borne pathogens, including Borrelia burgdorferi (Nazario et al., 1998).  Vaccines designed from a single tick component may also protect host animals from infectious agents.  A tick vaccine formulated with the tick cement protein 64TRP protected mice from being killed by the tick-borne encephalitis virus introduced by its vector, Ixodes ricinus (Labuda et al., 2006).

These earlier studies prompted Erol Fikrig's group at Yale to devise a vaccine that targets an Ixodes tick protein required by B. burgdorferi for a successful infection.  They focused on Salp15, a protein found in tick saliva.  Salp15 binds to the B. burgdorferi surface protein OspC as the spirochete passes through the salivary gland on its way into the skin of the victim.  Salp15 is one of the many bioactive salivary proteins that dampen the immune system to allow the tick to remain attached for several days so that it could complete its blood meal.  B. burgdorferi exploits Salp15 to fend off the immune response in the early stages of infection.  Since Salp15 coats B. burgdorferi, a vaccine targeting Salp15 could make B. burgdorferi vulnerable to killing by the immune system.  Indeed, Salp15 antiserum was able to enhance phagocytosis of Salp15-coated B. burgdorferi by mouse macrophages in vitro.

Despite the promising in vitro results, Salp15 as a vaccine was only partially protective in animal studies.  55-60% of mice actively immunized with Salp15 or passively immunized with Salp15 antiserum ended up infected with B. burgdorferi following challenge with infected Ixodes scapularis ticks.  Moreover, ticks were able to feed normally on mice immunized with Salp15, indicating that the animals did not acquire tick immunity.

Where Salp15 shined was in improving the efficacy of another Lyme vaccine.  The OspA vaccine requires several doses to achieve maximum protection against B. burgdorferi.  When Salp15 was combined with OspA, a single dose of the mixture spared 70% of mice from infection, whereas only 10-20% of mice immunized with a single dose of OspA or OspA plus Salp25D (an irrelevant tick salivary protein) were protected.  Thus future Lyme disease vaccines that target a component of the spirochete could also include Salp15 to enhance their protective capacity.

Scientists are undoubtedly examining other tick proteins as potential vaccines against ticks and the pathogens they transmit.

Featured paper

Dai, J., Wang, P., Adusumilli, S., Booth, C.J., Narasimhan, S., Anguita, J., and Fikrig, E. (November 19, 2009).  Antibodies against a tick protein, Salp15, protect mice from the Lyme disease agent.  Cell Host & Microbe 6:482-492.  DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2009.10.006

Other references

Labuda, M., Trimnell, A.R., Licková, M., Kazimírová, M.,Davies, G.M., Lissina, O., Hails, R.S., and Nuttall, P.A. (April 2006).  An antivector vaccine protects against a lethal vector-borne pathogen.  PLoS Pathogens 2(4):e27.  DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0020027

Nazario, S., Das, S., De Silva, A.M., Deponte, K., Marcantonio, N., Anderson, J.F., Fish, D., Fikrig, E., and Kantor, F.S. (June 1998).  Prevention of Borrelia burgdorferi transmission in guinea pigs by tick immunity.  American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 58(6):780-785.  Link

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tigecycline fails to eradicate persisting Borrelia burgdorferi

Antibiotics are usually successful in treating Lyme disease, especially if administered early.  The problem is that some patients continue to experience symptoms even after completing the recommended treatment regimen.  Although the current IDSA guidelines assert that the lingering symptoms are not due to persisting Borrelia burgdorferi,  the mouse model of Lyme disease clearly demonstrates the survival of live (albeit disabled) spirochetes following treatment with ceftriaxone, one of the antibiotics used to treat disseminated Lyme disease. As I wrote in an earlier post, the key question that must be answered is whether the lingering spirochetes are responsible for the persisting symptoms.  If so, a more potent antibiotic that could eliminate all of the spirochetes (or enough of them to allow the immune system to quickly mop up the rest) would be desired.

The newer antibiotic tigecycline was recently approved for treating skin and intra-abdominal infections caused by complex mixtures of bacteria.  Tigecycline is a tetracycline antibiotic, which blocks translation of mRNA into proteins by sticking tightly to the 30S ribosome subunit of bacteria.  In turns out that tigecycline exhibits greater antimicrobial activity than ceftriaxone (and doxycycline, another Lyme antibiotic) against B. burgdorferi, at least in the test tube.

Barthold and colleagues tested tigecycline to see if it could eradicate B. burgdorferi from persistently infected mice.  Groups of mice infected for 4 months with B. burgdorferi were treated with ceftriaxone (10 mice), a low dose of tigecycline (7 mice), or a high dose of tigecycline (9 mice).  A control group was sham treated with saline.  Three months after treatment was completed, the mice were examined to see if the spirochetes were still in the tissues.  As you might expect, B. burgdorferi DNA was detected by PCR at high levels in multiple tissues in all 10 mice that were administered saline, and the spirochetes were successfully cultured from the tissues.  In the ceftriaxone group, as shown in an earlier study by Barthold's lab, low levels of B. burgdorferi DNA were detected in leg joints from all 10 mice.  Although B. burgdorferi could not be cultured from the ceftriaxone-treated mice, ticks that fed on the mice were able to transmit the spirochetes to immunodeficient (SCID) mice, where B. burgdorferi was detected by PCR at the end of the experiment.  Since transmission requires active penetration of B. burgdorferi through several tissue barriers, the spirochetes that remained following antibiotic treatment must have been alive, although they could not be cultured.  Moreover, several B. burgdorferi mRNA transcripts were detected in some of the ceftriaxone-treated mice, another hint that the spirochetes remained viable (mRNA, unlike DNA, is extremely labile and would quickly degrade in dead bacteria).

How well did tigecycline work?  Despite its heightened potency against B. burgdorferi in test tube experiments and its much longer half-life in mice, tigecycline didn't work any better than ceftriaxone in eliminating the spirochetes, even at the higher dose.

The studies performed by Barthold's group raises several questions:
  • Would prolonging antibiotic treatment eventually eliminate the spirochetes?  Curiously, tigecycline was administered to the mice for only 10 days.
  • Do the spirochetes that remain following antibiotic treatment cause disease?  So far, the answer appears to be, "No."  Unlike the saline-treated mice, the antibiotic-treated mice did not exhibit any signs of disease.  Necropsies failed to reveal a inflammatory response against the spirochetes remaining in the tissues.
  • Do the spirochetes that survive antibiotic treatment give rise to disease later?  The earlier study by Barthold's group showed that although viable, the spirochetes were slowly diminishing in number in the tissues of mice that were treated with antibiotics.  If the mice were followed for a longer period of time, would the disabled spirochetes eventually disappear or revive to elicit a relapse of disease?
  • Is the mouse model even relevant to human Lyme disease?  Borrelia burgdorferi has evolved to persist in the mouse, its natural host, and may act differently in humans.  Obviously the experiments presented here can't be performed on humans, but an animal model that is more relevant to human Lyme disease may be more appropriate for addressing the issues raised by Barthold's work.
Featured paper

Barthold, S.W., Hodzic, E., Imai, D.M., Feng, S., Yang, X., and Luft, B.J. (February 2010).  Ineffectiveness of tigecycline against persistent Borrelia burgdorferiAntimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 54(2):643-651.  DOI: 10.1128/AAC.00788-09

Related paper

Hodzic, E., Feng, S., Holden, K., Freet, K.J., and Barthold, S.W. (May 2008).  Persistence of Borrelia burgdorferi following antibiotic treatment in mice.  Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 52(5):1728-1736.  DOI: 10.1128/AAC.01050-07

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Did spirochetes kill off the Indians in Massachusetts before the Mayflower landed?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe coast of present-day Massachusetts was inhabited by several Native American tribes in the early 17th century.  Fishermen, traders, and explorers from the Old World encountered the Indians during their occasional travel through the area.  However by the time the Mayflower landed in Plymouth in 1620 to establish a colony, a mysterious epidemic had ravaged coastal New England, killing up to 90% of the indigenous population during the years 1616 through 1619.  Experts have yet to agree on the cause of the epidemic.  Smallpox, plague, and yellow fever, all highly lethal diseases, have been blamed.

Native American tribes of southeastern Massachusetts, approx. 1620 (Figure 1 from Marr and Cathey)

An article in the new issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases offers leptospirosis, caused by Leptospira spirochetes, as another possible agent of the 1616-1619 epidemic.  This is based not on any new information but on an examination of the lifestyle of the Native Americans of early 17th century New England.

Rats infected with Leptospira may have stowed away in the ships that sailed from Europe to the New World.  Because Leptospira lives in the kidney tubules of chronic carriers, infected rats released into the New World would have contaminated their surroundings every time they urinated.  Since Leptospira can survive in moist soil and fresh water, indigenous rodents and other animals could have become chronically infected with Leptospira, further spreading the spirochete throughout the region. The Indian lifestyle provided plenty of opportunities for exposure to Leptospira through skin abrasions and swallowing of contaminated water or food.  Their high-risk activities included the following:
  • walking around barefooted
  • storing food accessible to rodents
  • swimming and bathing in streams and ponds
  • working on moist soil to raise and harvest crops
Leptospira has little effect on the health of carrier animals yet can cause humans to fall ill.  Many escape with what may be confused with a mild case of the flu, but some end up suffering with life-threatening symptoms.  Eyewitnesses of the 1616-1619 epidemic reported that victims were afflicted with skin lesions, severe headaches, yellowing of the skin (likely jaundice), and bloody nose (possibly from lung hemorrhage), which are all symptoms of the severe form of leptospirosis.  Even today leptospirosis can be deadly with reported fatality rates of greater than 50% among those with severe lung hemorrhaging.

While the authors should be commended for even considering a disease of a spirochete that is often ignored (at least by those in the developed world), I don't think Leptospira is what killed off the Indians. One strong argument against leptospirosis being the cause of the 1616-1619 epidemic is that Leptospira is not hardy enough to survive the cold winters that Mother Nature inflicts upon New England.  Since the fatalities continued through the winter, leptospirosis is unlikely to be the culprit.

Whatever the cause, the epidemic may have been a pivotal event that facilitated English colonization of coastal Massachusetts since the surviving Indians lacked the capacity to resist the newcomers.

Featured paper

Marr, J.S., & Cathey, J.T. (2010). New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619 Emerging Infectious Diseases, 16 (2), 281-286 DOI: 10.3201/eid1602.090276

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Lyme disease spirochete has flagella but doesn't use them to penetrate the gut of the feeding tick

ResearchBlogging.orgThe Lyme disease agent Borrelia burgdorferi possesses flagella, which are the thin motility structures owned by many members of the bacteria world.  Flagella propel bacteria towards their destination by spinning (read this post to see how flagella function in Borrelia).  It has been assumed B. burgdorferi spin their flagella whenever they need to move from one location to another.  A recent paper in The Journal of Clinical Investigation has demonstrated otherwise, at least for B. burgdorferi in the midgut of a feeding Ixodes (blacklegged) tick.

Borrelia burgdorferi spends much of its life cycle lying dormant in the midgut of Ixodes ticks.  The spirochetes lightly pepper the inner surface of the midgut cell lining, with a few spirochetes also hiding between cells.  None live at the base of the cells at the basement membrane surrounding the midgut.  The spirochetes wake up and multiply only when the tick attaches to an animal or human and imbibes blood.  A few days into the blood meal, some spirochetes eventually breech the basement membrane and enter the hemocoel, the fluid-filled space between the tick organs where they must avoid the phagocytes patrolling the area.  From there the spirochetes invade the salivary glands, which can then release B. burgdorferi-tainted saliva into the skin of the victim.  After completing its satisfying meal of blood, the tick detaches from the skin of the victim, who may end up suffering from Lyme disease.

Dunham-Ems and colleagues wanted to follow the spirochetes in the midgut as ticks took their meal of blood.  They engineered a strain of B. burgdorferi expressing green fluorescent protein so that they could watch the spirochetes in the gut by fluorescence microscopy.  They allowed ticks with the green B. burgdorferi strain in their midguts to feed on laboratory mice.  24, 48, and 72 hours after the ticks were placed on the mice, the investigators removed the midguts and examined the organ by fluorescence microscopy to see what the spirochetes were doing.  Surprisingly, they never saw motile spirochetes in the midgut even though the spirochetes eventually found their way at 72 hours into the hemocoel, where they were highly motile.

If the spirochetes in the midgut remained nonmotile during tick feeding, how did they reach the basement membrane? The few spirochetes that initially populated the midgut multiplied exponentially and formed growing networks of spirochetes on the cell surfaces as the tick drank blood from the mice.  By 72 hours the networks eventually coalesced, encasing many gut cells in spirochetes (see the figures below).  Spirochetes at the base of the encased cells were poised to penetrate the basement membrane and invade the hemocoel.  All of this happened without B. burgdorferi ever spinning its flagella.  Only when they broke through into the hemocoel did the flagella start spinning.

Figure 4F-H from Dunham-Ems 2009.  Confocal fluorescence microscopy of a midgut from a nymph that fed on a mouse for 72 hours.  Panel F shows a network of spirochetes (green) attached to the inner surface of the midgut.  An optical section taken 24-26 µm into the lining of the midgut (panel G) reveals aggregates of spirochetes surrounding the cells. Panel H shows that some spirochetes have made it to the basement membrane, which is found 50 µm below the surface.  The midgut cell membrane is stained in red.  Scale bars = 25 µm.  Some of the gut cells are extremely large because they are differentiating as part of the digestion process.

Figure 5 A and B from Dunham-Ems 2009.  Silver stain of sections from ticks that fed for 48 hours (panel A) and 72 hours (panel B).  The edges of the epithelial cells are easier to see than in the previous figure.  Arrows point to aggregates of spirochetes (hairy bodies).  At 72 hours at least one cell is encased in spirochetes.  Scale bars = 25 µm.  Some of the cells are extremely large because they are differentiating as part of the normal digestion process of the tick (dc, differentiated cells; uc, undifferentiated cells). 

The investigators also found that something in the tick midgut inhibited the motility of B. burgdorferi.  They placed a bit of minced midgut from a tick that had been feeding on a mouse for 72 hours at the edge of a gelatin matrix containing motile fluorescent B. burgdorferi.  (Because of their helical shape, spirochetes love to move about in viscous substances such as gelatin.)  Most of the spirochetes near the tissue ceased moving and remained motionless throughout the 15 minute viewing period.  In contrast, the spirochetes continued moving when mouse blood was placed at the edge of the gelatin matrix.

Why does B. burgdorferi employ a nonmotile mode of penetration of the cell lining of the tick midgut?  Is there some advantage for the spirochete to avoid using their flagella?  As blood is known to be a powerful chemoattractant for B. burgdorferi, the authors offered the following explanation:

These results, although counterintuitive at first blush, make sense; if blood in the midgut acted as a chemoattractant, spirochetes would never disseminate during feeding.
Hence the "inhibitor" of motility released by the tick gut serves as a signal to the spirochete to not spin their flagella.

To me, this explanation isn't satisfying.  It would seem simple for B. burgdorferi to have evolved a regulatory scheme that would allow the spirochete to temporarily uncouple blood chemotaxis from flagellar motility so that they could bore through the gut lining in minutes rather than days. There must be a reason why B. burgdorferi chooses to take its time to penetrate the gut lining.

Perhaps B. burgdorferi delays its journey to the salivary glands to allow the feeding tick to properly prepare the skin, which is an inhospitible environment for both tick and spirochete.  As the tick feeds, it releases a brew of anti-immune factors into the skin to protect itself from attack by the immune system.  Early arrival of B. burgdorferi to the salivary gland would release the spirochetes into the skin before the anti-immune factors have taken full effect, potentially allowing the host immune system to eliminate the spirochetes before they could establish an infection.


Dunham-Ems, S.M., Caimano, M.J., Pal, U., Wolgemuth, C.W., Eggers, C.H., Balic, A., & Radolf, J.D. (2009). Live imaging reveals a biphasic mode of dissemination of Borrelia burgdorferi within ticks. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 119(12):3652-3665. DOI: 10.1172/JCI39401

Sunday, January 3, 2010

E. coli-like genes in the spirochete Brachyspira hyodysenteriae, the agent of swine dysentery

The genus Brachyspira comprises at least seven species of anaerobic spirochetes that live in the large intestines of various birds and animals (including humans).  One species, Brachyspira hyodysenteriae, causes swine dysentery, a disease that causes economic loss among pig farmers worldwide.  Afflicted pigs produce loose stools covered with mucus and blood.  In severe cases, necrotic chunks of colon lining are expelled with the stool.

An Australian group sequenced the genome of B. hyodysenteriae strain WA1 to figure out how the spirochete thrives in the complex nutritional environment of the large intestine and induces swine dysentery.  They found 2,122 protein-coding genes distributed between a 3,000,694 bp chromosome and a 35,940 bp plasmid.  A number of genes encoded degradative enzymes such as proteases, phospholipases, and hemolysins that may or may not account for the damage to the colon observed in swine dysentery cases.  Otherwise, no obvious pathogenic mechanism for the disease process could be gleaned from the genome sequence.

Remarkably, half of the proteins encoded in the B. hyodysenteriae genome were most similar in sequence to proteins of Escherichia and Clostridium, genera that are not even on the same branch on the bacterial evolutionary tree as spirochetes.  A mere 6.4% of B. hyodysenteriae proteins matched best to proteins of other spirochetes.

From Table 3 of Bellgard 2009.

Among the Escherichia- and Clostridium-like genes, those encoding proteins involved with amino acid and sugar metabolism and transport were over-represented.  Since E. coli, Clostridium species, and B. hyodysenteriae all live in the large intestine, the similarity in the proteins may simply reflect convergent evolution that enable the bacteria to metabolize the nutrients available in the colon.  The more attractive possibility is that B. hyodysenteriae acquired the genes from the other enteric bacteria by horizontal gene transfer thereby allowing the spirochete to adapt to the complex nutritional environment of the large intestine.  At least for the E. coli-like genes, examining their GC content may help distinguish between the two possibilities since the GC content of B. hyodysenteriae is only 27% versus 50% for E. coli.

How can B. hyodysenteriae acquire genes from other enteric bacteria?  A commentary in the journal Gut Pathogens raised the possibility that bacteriophage-like elements found in the B. hyodysenteriae genome could be involved, although bacteriophages generally do not transfer DNA between different species of bacteria.  Another possibility is that genes could be acquired from other bacteria by conjugation, a form of microbial mating.  Although the capacity of B. hyodysenteriae for acquiring DNA from other bacteria by conjugation is unknown, scientists have demonstrated that another spirochete could acquire DNA from E. coli by conjugation in the laboratory setting.

Image source

Sow with piglet, from Wikipedia


Bellgard, M.I., Wanchanthuek, P., La, T., Ryan, K., Moolhuijzen, P., Albertyn, Z., Shaban, B., Motro, Y., Dunn, D.S., Schibeci, D., Hunter, A., Barrero, R., Phillips, N.D., and Hampson, D.J. (2009).  Genome sequence of the pathogenic intestinal spirochete Brachyspira hyodysenteriae reveals adaptations to its lifestyle in the porcine large intestine.  PLoS ONE 4(3):e4641. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004641

Hampson, D.J. and Ahmed, N. (2009).  Spirochaetes as intestinal pathogens:  Lessons from a Brachyspira genome.  Gut Pathogens 1(1):10.  DOI: 10.1186/1757-4749-1-10