Acquisition of expression of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa ExoU cytotoxin leads to increased bacterial virulence in a murine model of acute pneumonia and systemic spread

M Allewelt, F T Coleman, M Grout, G P Priebe, G B Pier
Infection and Immunity 2000, 68 (7): 3998-4004
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the nosocomial bacterial pathogen most commonly isolated from the respiratory tract. Animal models of this infection are extremely valuable for studies of virulence and immunity. We thus evaluated the utility of a simple model of acute pneumonia for analyzing P. aeruginosa virulence by characterizing the course of bacterial infection in BALB/c mice following application of bacteria to the nares of anesthetized animals. Bacterial aspiration into the lungs was rapid, and 67 to 100% of the inoculum could be recovered within minutes from the lungs, with 0.1 to 1% of the inoculum found intracellularly shortly after infection. At later time points up to 10% of the bacteria were intracellular, as revealed by gentamicin exclusion assays on single-cell suspensions of infected lungs. Expression of exoenzyme U (ExoU) by P. aeruginosa is associated with a cytotoxic effect on epithelial cells in vitro and virulence in animal models. Insertional mutations in the exoU gene confer a noncytotoxic phenotype on mutant strains and decrease virulence for animals. We used the model of acute pneumonia to determine whether introduction of the exoU gene into noncytotoxic strains of P. aeruginosa lacking this gene affected virulence. Seven phenotypically noncytotoxic P. aeruginosa strains were transformed with pUCP19exoUspcU which carries the exoU gene and its associated chaperone. Three of these strains became cytotoxic to cultured epithelial cells in vitro. These strains all secreted ExoU, as confirmed by detection of the ExoU protein with specific antisera. The 50% lethal dose of exoU-expressing strains was significantly lower for all three P. aeruginosa isolates carrying plasmid pUCP19exoUspcU than for the isogenic exoU-negative strains. mRNA specific for ExoU was readily detected in the lungs of animals infected with the transformed P. aeruginosa strains. Introduction of the exoU gene confers a cytotoxic phenotype on some, but not all, otherwise-noncytotoxic P. aeruginosa strains and, for recombinant strains that could express ExoU, there was markedly increased virulence in a murine model of acute pneumonia and systemic spread.

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