Role of CTR4 in the Virulence of Cryptococcus neoformans

While research has identified an important contribution for metals, such as iron, in microbial pathogenesis, the roles of other transition metals, such as copper, remain mostly unknown. Recent evidence points to a requirement for copper homeostasis in the virulence of Cryptococcus neoformans based on a role for a CUF1 copper regulatory factor in mouse models and in a human patient cohort. C. neoformans is an important fungal pathogen that results in an estimated 600,000 AIDS-related deaths yearly. In the present studies, we found that a C. neoformans mutant lacking the CUF1-dependent copper transporter, CTR4, grows normally in rich medium at 37°C but has reduced survival in macrophages and attenuated virulence in a mouse model. This reduced survival and virulence were traced to a growth defect under nutrient-restricted conditions. Expression studies using a full-length CTR4-fluorescent fusion reporter construct demonstrated robust expression in macrophages, brain, and lung, the latter shown by ex vivo fluorescent imaging. Inductively coupled mass spectroscopy (ICP-MS) was used to probe the copper quota of fungal cells grown in defined medium and recovered from brain, which suggested a role for a copper-protective function of CTR4 in combination with cell metallothioneins under copper-replete conditions. In summary, these data suggest a role for CTR4 in copper-related homeostasis and subsequently in fungal virulence. IMPORTANCE: Crytococcus neoformans is a significant global fungal pathogen, and copper homeostasis is a relatively unexplored aspect of microbial pathogenesis that could lead to novel therapeutics. Previous studies correlated expression levels of a Ctr4 copper transporter to development of meningoencephalitis in a patient cohort of solid-organ transplants, but a direct role for Ctr4 in mammalian pathogenesis has not been demonstrated. The present studies utilize a Δctr4 mutant strain which revealed an important role for CTR4 in C. neoformans infections in mice and relate the gene product to homeostatic control of copper and growth under nutrient-restricted conditions. Robust expression levels of CTR4 during fungal infection were exploited to demonstrate expression and lung cryptococcal disease using ex vivo fluorescence imaging. In summary, these studies are the first to directly demonstrate a role for a copper transporter in fungal disease and provide an ex vivo imaging tool for further study of cryptococcal gene expression and pathogenesis.

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