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A mycobacterial virulence gene cluster extending RD1 is required for cytolysis, bacterial spreading and ESAT-6 secretion


Initiation and maintenance of infection by mycobacteria in susceptible hosts are not well understood. A screen of Mycobacterium marinum transposon mutant library led to isolation of eight mutants that failed to cause haemolysis, all of which had transposon insertions in genes homologous to a region between Rv3866 and Rv3881c in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which encompasses RD1 (Rv3871-Rv3879c), a known virulence gene cluster. The M. marinum mutants showed decreased virulence in vivo and failed to secrete ESAT-6, like M. tuberculosis RD1 mutants. M. marinum mutants in genes homologous to Rv3866-Rv3868 also failed to accumulate intracellular ESAT-6, suggesting a possible role for those genes in synthesis or stability of the protein. These transposon mutants and an ESAT-6/CFP-10 deletion mutant all showed reduced cytolysis and cytotoxicity to macrophages and significantly decreased intracellular growth at late stages of the infection only when the cells were infected at low multiplicity of infection, suggesting a defect in spreading. Direct evidence for cell-to-cell spread by wild-type M. marinum was obtained by microscopic detection in macrophage and epithelial monolayers, but the mutants all were defective in this assay. Expression of M. tuberculosis homologues complemented the corresponding M. marinum mutants, emphasizing the functional similarities between M. tuberculosis and M. marinum genes in this region that we designate extRD1 (extended RD1). We suggest that diminished membranolytic activity and defective spreading is a mechanism for the attenuation of the extRD1 mutants. These results extend recent findings on the genomic boundaries and functions of M. tuberculosis RD1 and establish a molecular cellular basis for the role that extRD1 plays in mycobacterial virulence. Disruption of the M. marinum homologue of Rv3881c, not previously implicated in virulence, led to a much more attenuated phenotype in macrophages and in vivo, suggesting that this gene plays additional roles in M. marinum survival in the host.

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