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Toxoplasma gondii Extends the Life Span of Infected Human Neutrophils by Inducing Cytosolic PCNA and Blocking Activation of Apoptotic Caspases


Toxoplasma gondii is an intracellular protozoan parasite that has the remarkable ability to infect and replicate in neutrophils, immune cells with an arsenal of antimicrobial effector mechanisms. We report that T. gondii infection extends the life span of primary human peripheral blood neutrophils by delaying spontaneous apoptosis, serum starvation-induced apoptosis, and tumor necrosis alpha (TNF-α)-mediated apoptosis. T. gondii blockade of apoptosis was associated with an inhibition of processing and activation of the apoptotic caspases caspase-8 and -3, decreased phosphatidylserine exposure on the plasma membrane, and reduced cell death. We performed a global transcriptome analysis of T. gondii-infected peripheral blood neutrophils using RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) and identified gene expression changes associated with DNA replication and DNA repair pathways, which in mature neutrophils are indicative of changes in regulators of cell survival. Consistent with the RNA-Seq data, T. gondii infection upregulated transcript and protein expression of PCNA, which is found in the cytosol of human neutrophils, where it functions as a key inhibitor of apoptotic pro-caspases. Infection of neutrophils resulted in increased interaction of PCNA with pro-caspase-3. Inhibition of this interaction with an AlkB homologue 2 PCNA-interacting motif (APIM) peptide reversed the infection-induced delay in cell death. Taken together, these findings indicate a novel strategy by which T. gondii manipulates cell life span in primary human neutrophils, which may allow the parasite to maintain an intracellular replicative niche and avoid immune clearance.IMPORTANCEToxoplasma gondii is an obligate intracellular parasite that can cause life-threatening disease in immunocompromised individuals and in the developing fetus. Interestingly, T. gondii has evolved strategies to successfully manipulate the host immune system to establish a productive infection and evade host defense mechanisms. Although it is well documented that neutrophils are mobilized during acute T. gondii infection and infiltrate the site of infection, these cells can also be actively infected by T. gondii and serve as a replicative niche for the parasite. However, there is a limited understanding of the molecular processes occurring within T. gondii-infected neutrophils. This study reveals that T. gondii extends the life span of human neutrophils by inducing the expression of PCNA, which prevents activation of apoptotic caspases, thus delaying apoptosis. This strategy may allow the parasite to preserve its replicative intracellular niche.

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