ABSTRACT The chronic nature of tuberculosis (TB), its requirement of long duration of treatment, its ability to evade immune intervention, and its propensity to relapse after drug treatment is discontinued are reminiscent of other chronic, biofilm-associated bacterial diseases. Historically, Mycobacterium tuberculosis was grown as a pellicle, a biofilm-like structure, at the liquid-air interface in a variety of synthetic media. Notably, the most widely administered human vaccine, BCG, is grown as a pellicle for vaccine production. However, the molecular requirements for this growth remain ill defined. Here, we demonstrate that keto-mycolic acids (keto-MA) are essential for pellicle growth, and mutants lacking in or depleted of this MA species are unable to form a pellicle. We investigated the role of the pellicle biofilm in the reduction of antibiotic sensitivity known as drug tolerance using the pellicle-defective ?mmaA4 mutant strain. We discovered that the ?mmaA4 mutant, which is both pellicle defective and highly sensitive to rifampicin (RIF) under planktonic growth, when incorporated within the wild-type pellicle biofilm, was protected from the bactericidal activity of RIF. The observation that growth within the M. tuberculosis pellicle biofilm can confer drug tolerance to a drug-hypersensitive strain suggests that identifying molecular requirements for pellicle growth could lead to development of novel interventions against mycobacterial infections. Our findings also suggest that a class of drugs that can disrupt M. tuberculosis biofilm formation, when used in conjunction with conventional antibiotics, has the potential to overcome drug tolerance. IMPORTANCE Two of the most important questions in tuberculosis (TB) research are (i) how does Mycobacterium tuberculosis persist in the human host for decades in the face of an active immune response and (ii) why does it take six months and four drugs to treat uncomplicated TB. Both these aspects of M. tuberculosis biology are reminiscent of infections caused by organisms capable of forming biofilms. M. tuberculosis is capable of growing as a biofilm-like structure called the pellicle. In this study, we demonstrate that a specific cell wall component, keto-mycolic acid, is essential for pellicle growth. We also demonstrate that a strain of M. tuberculosis that is both drug sensitive and pellicle defective exhibits commensal behavior and becomes drug tolerant by becoming part of a heterogeneous pellicle, a characteristic of multispecies biofilms. These observations could have important implications for identifying novel pathways for M. tuberculosis drug tolerance and the design of new modalities to rapidly treat TB.
We report the involvement of an evolutionarily conserved set of mycobacterial genes, the esx-3 region, in evasion of bacterial killing by innate immunity. Whereas high-dose intravenous infections of mice with the rapidly growing mycobacterial species Mycobacterium smegmatis bearing an intact esx-3 locus were rapidly lethal, infection with an M. smegmatis ?esx-3 mutant (here designated as the IKE strain) was controlled and cleared by a MyD88-dependent bactericidal immune response. Introduction of the orthologous Mycobacterium tuberculosis esx-3 genes into the IKE strain resulted in a strain, designated IKEPLUS, that remained susceptible to innate immune killing and was highly attenuated in mice but had a marked ability to stimulate bactericidal immunity against challenge with virulent M. tuberculosis. Analysis of these adaptive immune responses indicated that the highly protective bactericidal immunity elicited by IKEPLUS was dependent on CD4(+) memory T cells and involved a distinct shift in the pattern of cytokine responses by CD4(+) cells. Our results establish a role for the esx-3 locus in promoting mycobacterial virulence and also identify the IKE strain as a potentially powerful candidate vaccine vector for eliciting protective immunity to M. tuberculosis.
A new vaccination strategy is urgently needed for improved control of the global tuberculosis (TB) epidemic. Using a mouse aerosol Mycobacterium tuberculosis challenge model, we investigated the protective efficacy of a mmaA4 gene deletion mutant of Mycobacterium bovis BCG (?mmaA4BCG) formulated in dimethyl dioctadecyl ammonium bromide (DDA) - D(+) trehalose 6,6 dibenenate (TDB) (DDA/TDB) adjuvant. In previous studies, deletion of the mmaA4 gene was shown to reduce the suppression of IL-12 production often seen after mycobacterial infections. While the non-adjuvanted ?mmaA4BCG strain did not protect mice substantially better than conventional BCG against a tuberculous challenge in four protection experiments, the protective responses induced by the ?mmaA4BCG vaccine formulated in DDA/TDB adjuvant was consistently increased relative to nonadjuvanted BCG controls. Furthermore, the ?mmaA4BCG-DDA/TDB vaccine induced significantly higher frequencies of multifunctional (MFT) CD4 T cells expressing both IFN? and TNF? (double positive) or IFN?, TNF? and IL-2 (triple positive) than CD4 T cells derived from mice vaccinated with BCG. These MFT cells were characterized by having higher IFN? and TNF? median fluorescence intensity (MFI) values than monofunctional CD4 T cells. Interestingly, both BCG/adjuvant and ?mmaA4BCG/adjuvant formulations induced significantly higher frequencies of CD4 T cells expressing TNF? and IL-2 than nonadjuvanted BCG or ?mmaA4BCG vaccines indicating that BCG/adjuvant mixtures may be more effective at inducing central memory T cells. Importantly, when either conventional BCG or the mutant were formulated in adjuvant and administered to SCID mice or immunocompromised mice depleted of IFN?, significantly lower vaccine-derived mycobacterial CFU were detected relative to immunodeficient mice injected with non-adjuvanted BCG. Overall, these data suggest that immunization with the ?mmaA4BCG/adjuvant formulation may be an effective, safe, and relatively inexpensive alternative to vaccination with conventional BCG.
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