Fungus uses copper detoxification as crafty defense mechanism

March 14, 2013
The C. neoformans cells contain a gene that is expressed only when the cells encounter high levels of copper and expression of the gene is detected as the appearance of colors in live animal imaging studies.

(Phys.org) —A potentially lethal fungal infection appears to gain virulence by being able to anticipate and disarm a hostile immune attack in the lungs, according to findings by researchers at Duke Medicine.

Defense mechanisms used by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans enable it to lead to fatal , which is one of the often associated with death in HIV/ or in , diabetics and other immunosuppressed patients. In describing the complex process of how C. neoformans averts destruction in the lungs of mice, the Duke researchers have opened new options for drug development.

"Very few are effective, so we need to identify the Achilles' heel of these ," said Dennis J. Thiele, PhD, the George Barth Geller Professor of Pharmacology and at Duke University. Thiele is senior author of a study published March 13, 2013, in the journal Cell Host & Microbe. "With this research we may be closer to understanding how this fungal pathogen evades death in its host, and hopefully be closer to finding effective treatments."

Found in the environment, C. neoformans spores can be inhaled and cause infection, particularly when people have weakened immune systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that worldwide, C. neoformans causes 1 million cases of meningitis a year among HIV/AIDS patients, with nearly 625,000 deaths.

Thiele and colleagues focused on the interplay between C. neoformans in the lungs of mice and the host's immune system, which mounts an immediate attack against the pathogen.

The immune response is led by macrophages, which circulate in the blood stream and engulf invading microbes to destroy them. The macrophages are essentially tiny torture chambers for pathogens, using hostile conditions and toxic substances to kill invaders.

Among the substances inside the macrophages is copper, a mineral the body needs for normal cognitive function and development, but also known to have antifungal properties. In the face of a pathogenic invasion of fungal spores, the macrophages begin concentrating more copper within their torture chamber as one of the body's antifungal weapons.

The Duke researchers found that lethal strains of C. neoformans have two ways of battling against the toxicity of the copper. First, the pathogen turns on genes that make proteins to protect it from copper toxicity, so even when exposed to the hostile copper environment in the macrophages, it survives.

Then a second defense mechanism is also deployed. The fungus, sensing the copper-rich environment, triggers a response that shuts down the host's ability to pump more copper into the macrophages – defusing this weapon in the immune system's arsenal.

"With these two mechanisms, C. neoformans can defend itself by sequestering the copper, and somehow communicate to the host macrophage, commanding that it shut down the copper pumps," Thiele said.

Thiele said studies are now focusing on how antifungal agents might thwart the pathogen's two defense systems. "The detoxification machinery might represent an effective drug target," Thiele said.

Explore further: The key to survival and virulence for a fungal pathogen is autophagy

Related Stories

Predicting fatal fungal infections

June 16, 2009

In a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have identified cells in blood that predict which HIV-positive individuals are most likely ...

Recommended for you

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

Studies reveal details of error correction in cell division

July 29, 2015

Cell biologists led by Thomas Maresca at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with collaborators elsewhere, report an advance in understanding the workings of an error correction mechanism that helps cells detect and ...

Researchers discover new type of mycovirus

July 29, 2015

Researchers, led by Dr Robert Coutts, Leverhulme Research Fellow from the School of Life and Medical Sciences at the University of Hertfordshire, and Dr Ioly Kotta-Loizou, Research Associate at Imperial College, have discovered ...

Stressed out plants send animal-like signals

July 29, 2015

University of Adelaide research has shown for the first time that, despite not having a nervous system, plants use signals normally associated with animals when they encounter stress.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mike_Massen
not rated yet Mar 14, 2013
And most people on a typical western diet are below the RDI for copper by a significant amount...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.