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Concept: Cryptococcus neoformans


Cryptococcosis is the leading invasive fungal infection in the world today. Over the past century, the causative agents, Cryptococcus neoformans and Cryptococcus gattii, have risen from the status of medical curiosities to common but life-threatening central nervous system pathogens. In an elegant experimental pathobiology study of these two organisms carried out by Ngamskulrungroj et al., there are three matters that merit further discussion. First is the question of whether there is a variable specific pathobiology for each yeast strain. Does it make biological and clinical sense to designate C. neoformans and C. gattii as two separate species? Second is the matter of how the organisms differ pathologically at the site of infection. Finally, there is the possibility that the human immune system responds differently to each species. Although no single study can provide definitive mechanistic answers to the important questions, this experimental pathology study and its discussion clearly frame the issues to be dissected.

Concepts: AIDS, Immune system, Nervous system, Bacteria, Biology, Pathology, Cryptococcus neoformans, Basidiomycota


Cryptococcus neoformans is a ubiquitous human fungal pathogen. This pathogen can undergo morphotype transition between the yeast and the filamentous form and such morphological transition has been implicated in virulence for decades. Morphotype transition is typically observed during mating, which is governed by pheromone signaling. Paradoxically, components specific to the pheromone signaling pathways play no or minimal direct roles in virulence. Thus, the link between morphotype transition and virulence and the underlying molecular mechanism remain elusive. Here, we demonstrate that filamentation can occur independent of pheromone signaling and mating, and both mating-dependent and mating-independent morphotype transition require the transcription factor Znf2. High expression of Znf2 is necessary and sufficient to initiate and maintain sex-independent filamentous growth under host-relevant conditions in vitro and during infection. Importantly, ZNF2 overexpression abolishes fungal virulence in murine models of cryptococcosis. Thus, Znf2 bridges the sex-independent morphotype transition and fungal pathogenicity. The impacts of Znf2 on morphological switch and pathogenicity are at least partly mediated through its effects on cell adhesion property. Cfl1, a Znf2 downstream factor, regulates morphogenesis, cell adhesion, biofilm formation, and virulence. Cfl1 is the first adhesin discovered in the phylum Basidiomycota of the Kingdom Fungi. Together with previous findings in other eukaryotic pathogens, our findings support a convergent evolution of plasticity in morphology and its impact on cell adhesion as a critical adaptive trait for pathogenesis.

Concepts: Gene expression, Bacteria, Microbiology, Eukaryote, Fungus, Yeast, Cryptococcus neoformans, Basidiomycota


The invasive ability of the blood-borne fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans can be enhanced through interactions with host plasma components, such as plasminogen. Previously we showed by in vitro studies that plasminogen coats the surface of C. neoformans and is converted to the active serine protease, plasmin, by host plasminogen activators. Viable, but not formaldehyde- or sodium azide-killed, cryptococcal strains undergo brain microvascular endothelial cell-dependent plasminogen-to-plasmin activation, which results in enhanced, plasmin-dependent cryptococcal invasion of primary bovine brain microvascular endothelial cells and fungal ability to degrade plasmin substrates. In the present work, brain microvascular endothelial cells cultured with viable, but not killed, cryptococcal strains led to significant increases in both urokinase mRNA transcription and cell-associated urokinase protein expression. Soluble urokinase was also detected in conditioned medium from brain microvascular endothelial cells cultured with viable, but not killed, C. neoformans. Exposure of plasminogen pre-coated viable C. neoformans to conditioned medium from strain-matched brain microvascular endothelial cell-fungal co-cultures resulted in plasminogen-to-plasmin activation and plasmin-dependent cryptococcal invasion. siRNA-mediated silencing of urokinase gene expression or the use of specific inhibitors of urokinase activity abrogated both plasminogen-to-plasmin activation on C. neoformans and cryptococcal-brain microvascular endothelial cell invasion. Our results suggest that pathogen exploitation of the host urokinase-plasmin(ogen) system may contribute to C. neoformans virulence during invasive cryptococcosis.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Cell nucleus, Gene expression, Bacteria, Fibrinolysis, Cryptococcus neoformans, Cryptococcus


The fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans poses a major threat to immunocompromised patients and is a leading killer of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected patients worldwide. Cryptococci are known to manipulate host macrophages and can either remain latent or proliferate intracellularly within the host phagocyte, a favourable niche that also renders them relatively insensitive to antifungal agents. Here we report an attempt to address this limitation by using a fluorescence-based drug screening method to identify potential inhibitors of intracellular proliferation of C. neoformans. The Prestwick Chemical Library(®) of FDA-approved small molecules was screened for compounds that limit the intracellular replication of a fluorescently-tagged C. neoformans reference strain (H99-GFP) in macrophages. Preliminary screening revealed 19 of 1200 compounds that could significantly reduce intracellular growth of the pathogen. Secondary screening and host cell cytotoxicity assays highlighted fendiline hydrochloride as a potential drug candidate for the development of future anticryptococcal therapies. Live cell imaging demonstrated that this Ca(2+) channel blocker strongly enhanced phagosome maturation in macrophages leading to improved fungal killing and reduced intracellular replication. Whilst the relatively high dose of fendiline hydrochloride required renders it unfit for clinical deployment against cryptococcosis, this study highlights a novel approach for identifying new lead compounds and unravels a pharmacologically promising scaffold towards the development of novel antifungal therapies for this neglected disease.

Concepts: HIV, AIDS, Immune system, Cryptococcus neoformans, Enzyme inhibitor, Flucytosine, Basidiomycota, Fluconazole


Cryptococcus neoformans is a fatal fungal pathogen of humans that efficiently parasitises macrophages. Birds can be colonised by cryptococci and can transmit cryptococcosis to humans via inhalation of inoculated bird excreta. However, colonisation of birds appears to occur in the absence of symptomatic infection. Here, using a pure population of primary bird macrophages, we demonstrate a mechanism for this relationship. We find that bird macrophages are able to suppress the growth of cryptococci seen in mammalian cells despite C. neoformans being able to grow at bird body temperature, and are able to escape from bird macrophages by vomocytosis. A small subset of cryptococci are able to adapt to the inhibitory intracellular environment of bird macrophages, exhibiting a large cell phenotype that rescues growth suppression. Thus, restriction of intracellular growth combined with survival at bird body temperature explains the ability of birds to efficiently spread C. neoformans in the environment whilst avoiding systemic disease.

Concepts: AIDS, Immune system, Fungus, Bird, Cryptococcus neoformans, Basidiomycota, Cryptococcus, Cryptococcosis


The Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein phosphatase calcineurin orchestrates sexual reproduction, stress responses, and virulence via branched downstream pathways in the opportunistic human fungal pathogen, Cryptococcus neoformans The calcineurin binding protein Cbp1, the calcineurin temperature suppressor Cts1, the calcineurin responsive zinc finger transcription factor Crz1, and the calcineurin targets Pbp1, Tif3, and Puf4 all function downstream of calcineurin to orchestrate distinct cellular processes. To elucidate how the calcineurin pathway regulatory network governs unisexual reproduction, stress responses, and virulence, we have analyzed the self-filamentous C. deneoformans strain, XL280α, and generated double mutants of these calcineurin downstream genes. We demonstrated that calcineurin governs unisexual reproduction at different sexual developmental stages, in which the initiation of the yeast-hyphal morphological transition is independent of Crz1, whereas the sporulation process is dependent on Crz1. Calcineurin-dependent unisexual reproduction is independent of the pheromone response pathway. Crz1 synergistically interacts with different calcineurin downstream targets in responding to ER, high calcium, and cell wall stresses. We observed a wide-spread synergy suggesting that these proteins function in complex branched pathways downstream of calcineurin with some functional redundancy, which may allow efficient signaling network rewiring within the pathway for prompt adaptation to changing environments. Finally, we showed that deletion of PBP1 or TIF3 in the cna1∆ mutant background conferred a modest level of growth tolerance at 37°C, but the cna1∆ pbp1∆ and cna1∆ tif3∆ double mutants were both avirulent, suggesting that calcineurin may control virulence via mechanisms beyond thermotolerance.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Protein structure, Reproduction, Enzyme, Cryptococcus neoformans, Phosphatase, Calcineurin


Iron availability is a key regulator of virulence factor elaboration in Cryptococcus neoformans, the causative agent of fungal meningoencephalitis in HIV/AIDS patients. In addition, iron is an essential nutrient for pathogen proliferation in mammalian hosts but little is known about the mechanisms of iron sensing and uptake in fungal pathogens that attack humans. In this study, we mutagenized C. neoformans by Agrobacterium-mediated T-DNA insertion and screened for mutants with reduced growth on heme as the sole iron source. Among 34 mutants, we identified a subset with insertions in the gene for the ESCRT-I (endosomal sorting complex required for transport) protein Vps23 that resulted in a growth defect on heme, presumably due to a defect in uptake via endocytosis or misregulation of iron acquisition from heme. Remarkably, vps23 mutants were also defective in the elaboration of the cell-associated capsular polysaccharide that is a major virulence factor, while overexpression of Vps23 resulted in cells with a slightly enlarged capsule. These phenotypes were mirrored by a virulence defect in the vps23 mutant in a mouse model of cryptococcosis and by hypervirulence of the overexpression strain. Overall, these results reveal an important role for trafficking via ESCRT functions in both heme uptake and capsule formation, and they further reinforce the connection between iron and virulence factor deployment in C. neoformans.

Concepts: AIDS, Gene, Bacteria, Yeast, Cryptococcus neoformans, Basidiomycota, Cryptococcus, Cryptococcosis


The search for new compounds with antifungal activity is accelerating due to rising yeast and fungal resistance to commonly prescribed drugs. Among the molecules being investigated, plant lectins can be highlighted. The present work shows the potential of six plant lectins which were tested in vitro against yeasts of medical importance, Candida albicans, Candida tropicalis, Candida parapsilosis, Cryptococcus gattii, Cryptococcus neoformans, Malassezia pachydermatis, Rhodotorula sp. and Trichosporon sp. Broth microdilution susceptibility testing was performed in accordance with standard protocols to evaluate antifungal activity. Minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) was determined at 80 % yeast growth inhibition, whereas the minimum fungicidal concentration (MFC) was evaluated after making the subcultures of each dilution. Only C. parapsilosis growth was inhibited by the lectins tested. Abelmoschus esculentus lectin showed the highest MIC (0.97 μg ml(-1)). Lectins from Canavalia brasiliensis, Mucuna pruriens and Clitoria fairchildiana presented the highest MFC at (3.90 μg ml(-1)). These results encourage further studies with wider yeast strain selections, and open new perspectives for the development of pharmacological molecules.

Concepts: Fungus, Yeast, Cryptococcus neoformans, Candida albicans, Candida, Yeasts, Concanavalin A, Candida parapsilosis


The high-affinity reductive iron uptake system that includes a ferroxidase (Cfo1) and an iron permease (Cft1) is critical for the pathogenesis of Cryptococcus neoformans. In addition, a mutant lacking CFO1 or CFT1 not only has reduced iron uptake but also displays a markedly increased susceptibility to azole antifungal drugs. Altered antifungal susceptibility of the mutants was of particular interest because the iron uptake system has been proposed as an alternative target for antifungal treatment. In this study, we used transcriptome analysis to begin exploring the molecular mechanisms of altered antifungal susceptibility in a cfo1 mutant. The wild-type strain and the cfo1 mutant were cultured with or without the azole antifungal drug fluconazole and their transcriptomes were compared following sequencing with Illumina Genome Analyzer IIx (GAIIx) technology. As expected, treatment of both strains with fluconazole caused elevated expression of genes in the ergosterol biosynthetic pathway that includes the target enzyme Erg11. Additionally, genes differentially expressed in the cfo1 mutant were involved in iron uptake and homeostasis, mitochondrial functions and respiration. The cfo1 mutant also displayed phenotypes consistent with these changes including a reduced ratio of NAD(+)/NADH and down-regulation of Fe-S cluster synthesis. Moreover, combination treatment of the wild-type strain with fluconazole and the respiration inhibitor diphenyleneiodonium dramatically increased susceptibility to fluconazole. This result supports the hypothesis that down-regulation of genes required for respiration contributed to the altered fluconazole susceptibility of the cfo1 mutant. Overall, our data suggest that iron uptake and homeostasis play a key role in antifungal susceptibility and could be used as novel targets for combination treatment of cryptococcosis. Indeed, we found that iron chelation in combination with fluconazole treatment synergistically inhibited the growth of C. neoformans.

Concepts: AIDS, Gene, Gene expression, Cryptococcus neoformans, Flucytosine, Antifungal drug, Fluconazole, Cryptococcosis


The human fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans is characterized by its ability to induce a distinct polysaccharide capsule in response to a number of host-specific environmental stimuli. The induction of capsule is a complex biological process encompassing regulation at multiple steps, including the biosynthesis, transport, and maintenance of the polysaccharide at the cell surface. By precisely regulating the composition of its cell surface and secreted polysaccharides, C. neoformans has developed intricate ways to establish chronic infection and dormancy in the human host. The plasticity of the capsule structure in response to various host conditions also underscores the complex relationship between host and parasite. Much of this precise regulation of capsule is achieved through the transcriptional responses of multiple conserved signaling pathways that have been coopted to regulate this C. neoformans-specific virulence-associated phenotype. This review focuses on specific host stimuli that trigger the activation of the signal transduction cascades and on the downstream transcriptional responses that are required for robust encapsulation around the cell.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Bacteria, Microbiology, Fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans, Basidiomycota