Calcineurin plays key roles in the dimorphic transition and virulence of the human pathogenic zygomycete Mucor circinelloides.
Many pathogenic fungi are dimorphic and switch between yeast and filamentous states. This switch alters host-microbe interactions and is critical for pathogenicity. However, in zygomycetes, whether dimorphism contributes to virulence is a central unanswered question. The pathogenic zygomycete Mucor circinelloides exhibits hyphal growth in aerobic conditions but switches to multi-budded yeast growth under anaerobic/high CO₂ conditions. We found that in the presence of the calcineurin inhibitor FK506, Mucor exhibits exclusively multi-budded yeast growth. We also found that M. circinelloides encodes three calcineurin catalytic A subunits (CnaA, CnaB, and CnaC) and one calcineurin regulatory B subunit (CnbR). Mutations in the latch region of CnbR and in the FKBP12-FK506 binding domain of CnaA result in hyphal growth of Mucor in the presence of FK506. Disruption of the cnbR gene encoding the sole calcineurin B subunit necessary for calcineurin activity yielded mutants locked in permanent yeast phase growth. These findings reveal that the calcineurin pathway plays key roles in the dimorphic transition from yeast to hyphae. The cnbR yeast-locked mutants are less virulent than the wild-type strain in a heterologous host system, providing evidence that hyphae or the yeast-hyphal transition are linked to virulence. Protein kinase A activity (PKA) is elevated during yeast growth under anaerobic conditions, in the presence of FK506, or in the yeast-locked cnbR mutants, suggesting a novel connection between PKA and calcineurin. cnaA mutants lacking the CnaA catalytic subunit are hypersensitive to calcineurin inhibitors, display a hyphal polarity defect, and produce a mixture of yeast and hyphae in aerobic culture. The cnaA mutants also produce spores that are larger than wild-type, and spore size is correlated with virulence potential. Our results demonstrate that the calcineurin pathway orchestrates the yeast-hyphal and spore size dimorphic transitions that contribute to virulence of this common zygomycete fungal pathogen.
Lee, SC; Li, A; Calo, S; Heitman, J
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