Toxigenic Corynebacterium diphtheriae strains cause diphtheria in humans. The toxigenic C. diphtheriae isolate NCTC13129 produces three distinct heterotrimeric pili that contain SpaA, SpaD, and SpaH, making up the shaft structure. The SpaA pili are known to mediate bacterial adherence to pharyngeal epithelial cells. However, to date little is known about the expression of different pili in various clinical isolates and their importance in bacterial pathogenesis. Here, we characterized a large collection of C. diphtheriae clinical isolates for their pilin gene pool by PCR and for the expression of the respective pilins by immunoblotting with antibodies against Spa pilins. Consistent with the role of a virulence factor, the SpaA-type pili were found to be prevalent among the isolates, and most significantly, corynebacterial adherence to pharyngeal epithelial cells was strictly correlated with isolates that were positive for the SpaA pili. By comparison, the isolates were heterogeneous for the presence of SpaD- and SpaHtype pili. Importantly, using Caenorhabditis elegans as a model host for infection, we show here that strain NCTC13129 rapidly killed the nematodes, the phenotype similar to isolates that were positive for toxin and all pilus types. In contrast, isogenic mutants of NCTC13129 lacking SpaA-type pili or devoid of toxin and SpaA pili exhibited delayed killing of nematodes with similar kinetics. Consistently, nontoxigenic or toxigenic isolates that lack one, two, or all three pilus types were also attenuated in virulence. This work signifies the important role of pili in corynebacterial pathogenesis and provides a simple host model to identify additional virulence factors.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Molecular Biology