Investigating the Role of Pallilysin in the Dissemination of the Syphilis Spirochete Treponema pallidum




Denchev, Yavor

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Syphilis is a global public health concern with 36.4 million cases worldwide and 11 million new infections per year. It is a chronic multistage disease caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum and is transmitted by sexual contact, direct contact with lesions or vertically from an infected mother to her fetus. T. pallidum is a highly invasive pathogen that rapidly penetrates tight junctions of endothelial cells and disseminates rapidly via the bloodstream to establish widespread infection. Previous investigations conducted in our laboratory identified the surface-exposed adhesin, pallilysin, as a metalloprotease that degrades the host components laminin (major component of the basement membrane lining blood vessels) and fibrinogen (primary component of the coagulation cascade), as well as fibrin clots (function to entrap bacteria and prevent disseminated infection). Furthermore, pallilysin expressed on the surface of the non-invasive spirochete Treponema phagedenis conferred upon this bacterium the ability to degrade fibrin clots. It was hypothesized that pallilysin is integral to the process of T. pallidum dissemination, and interference with its functioning will prevent spread throughout the host and establishment of chronic infection. To test this hypothesis, a two-pronged approach was undertaken during my thesis research. Bioinformatics analyses were used to trace the evolutionary history of pallilysin in an attempt to gain further insight into its role in the pathogenesis of T. pallidum. The sequence conservation of pallilysin was analyzed in the context of its homologues. The bioinformatics analyses revealed homologues in three spirochete genera, namely Treponema, Spirochaeta, and Borrelia, presented in decreasing order of the degree of sequence conservation. The HEXXH motif, part of the active site of the pallilysin metalloprotease, was fully conserved only in T. pallidum and T. paraluiscuniculi, both of which are systemic pathogens. However, the flanking sequences showed a high degree of conservation, especially in the Treponema and Spirochaeta genera. The minimum laminin-binding region of pallilysin identified previously was partially conserved among the treponema and spirochaeta homologues with the highest degree of conservation observed with the homologues from T. paraluiscuniculi and T. phagedenis, as well as among the homologues from the human oral pathogens. In vitro dissemination studies were performed to investigate the dissemination capacity of T. phagedenis heterologously expressing pallilysin. Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells were seeded and grown to confluence on permeable inserts coated with growth factor-reduced Matrigel to create an artificial endothelial barrier. Wild type T. phagedenis, and T. phagedenis transformed either with the pallilysin open reading frame or its empty shuttle vector, were incubated with the barriers under anaerobic conditions. Dissemination across the barrier was assessed as percent traversal by both dark-field microscopic counts of treponemes and real-time quantitative PCR of genomic DNA extracted from the treponemes. The results were inconclusive. However, a traversal trend suggested heterologous expression of pallilysin may facilitate traversal of T. phagedenis across the artificial endothelial barrier. This study presented the first step towards elucidating the role of pallilysin in endothelial monolayer traversal and provided supporting evidence for the role of pallilysin in the widespread dissemination of T. pallidum in vivo.



Treponema pallidum, Treponema phagedenis, pallilysin, Dissemination, syphilis, outer membrane protein, HUVEC