Pathogen turns protein into a virulence factor in one easy step

Posted on May 7, 2013

To infect its host, the respiratory pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa takes an ordinary protein usually involved in making other proteins and adds three small molecules to turn it into a key for gaining access to human cells. In a study to be published May 7 in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine, the University of Virginia, and Universidad de las Islas Baleares in Mallorca, Spain, uncover this previously unknown virulence factor in P. aeruginosa, one of the most common causes of hospital-acquired pneumonia.

Co-author Joanna Goldberg of Emory says scientists have long thought P. aeruginosa mostly uses this protein called elongation factor-Tu (EF-Tu) inside the cell, but she and her collaborators have learned that as a virulence factor, it could represent a vulnerability for the bacterium. “EF-Tu is presumed to be an essential protein, and it’s performing these moonlighting functions as well. If we figured out how it was doing that, we could devise strategies to inhibit it,” says Goldberg.

P. aeruginosa pneumonia is a big problem in the hospital setting, where it is a frequent cause of hospital-acquired pneumonia and is the leading cause of death among critically ill patients whose airways have been damaged by ventilation, trauma, or other infections. The pathogen is also a contributor to disease in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients and forms thick biofilms that are difficult or impossible to treat with antibiotics. Goldberg and her co-author Sebastian Alberti and their colleagues study the molecular events that enable the bacterium to infect human cells in the hopes of finding ways to prevent P. aeruginosa pneumonia.

In their earlier work, Goldberg and Alberti found that P. aeruginosa takes the protein EF-Tu, which was generally thought to exist only inside the cell, and decorates the exterior of the cell with it, but in a modified form. This modified EF-Tu is recognized by antibodies to the common bacterial epitope phosphorylcholine (ChoP), indicating that the EF-Tu is modified somehow to mimic ChoP, allowing P. aeruginosa to enjoy the benefits of ChoP. By interacting with receptors on human cells, ChoP carries out a crucial step for setting up an infection for a number of different types of respiratory pathogens.

But how is EF-Tu modified, they wondered? And does it help P. aeruginosa establish an infection? This study answers those questions.

Read more at: Phys.org