Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Immunology and Microbiology



First Thesis Advisor

Dr. Egil Lien


Yersinia pestis, Virulence Factors, Lipid A, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Gram-Negative Bacteria


Yersinia pestis, the gram-negative causative agent of plague, is a master of immune evasion. The bacterium possesses a type three secretion system which translocates Yop effector proteins into host immune cells to inhibit a number of immune and cell signaling cascades. Interestingly, this apparatus is not expressed at low temperatures such as those found within the flea vector and is therefore neither in place nor functional when the bacteria are first transmitted into a mammalian host. However, the bacterium is still able to avoid activating the immune system, even very early during infection.

When grown at 37°C (human body temperature) Y. pestis produces a tetra-acyl lipid A molecule, which is antagonistic to the human Toll like receptor 4/MD2, the major lipopolysaccharide recognition receptor. Although tetra-acyl lipid A binds this receptor complex, it does not induce signaling, and in fact inhibits the receptors interaction with other stimulatory forms of lipid A. The work undertaken in this thesis seeks to determine if the production of tetra-acyl lipid A by Y. pestis is a key virulence determinant and was a critical factor in the evolution of Y. pestis from its ancestral parent Yersinia pseudotuberculosis.

By examining the enzymes involved in the lipid A biosynthesis pathway, it has been determined that Y. pestis lacks LpxL, a key enzyme that adds a secondary acyl chain on to the tetra acyl lipid A molecule. In the absence of this enzyme, Y. pestis cannot produce a TLR4 stimulating form of lipid A, whereas Y. pseudotuberculosis does contain the gene for LpxL and produces a stimulatory hexa acyl lipid A. To determine if the absence of LpxL in Y. pestis is important for virulence, LpxL from E. coli and Y. pseudotuberculosis were introduced into Y. pestis. In both cases the addition of LpxL led to bacterium which produced a hexa-acylated lipid A molecule and TLR4/MD2 stimulatory LPS. To verify the LpxL phenotype, lpxL was deleted from Y. pseudotuberculosis, resulting in bacteria which produce tetra-acylated lipid A and nonstimulatory LPS. Mice challenged with LpxL expressing Y. pestis were found to be completely resistant to infection. This profound attenuation in virulence is TLR4 dependent, as mice deficient for this receptor rapidly succumb to disease. These altered strains of the bacterium also act as vaccines, as mice infected with Y. pestis expressing LpxL then challenged with wild type Y. pestis do not become ill. These data demonstrate that the production of tetra-acyl lipid A is a critical virulence determinant for Y. pestis, and that the loss of LpxL formed a major step in the evolution of Y. pestis from Y. pseudotuberculosis.

These bacterial strains were also used as tools to determine the contributions of different innate immune receptors and adaptor molecules to the host response during Y. pestis infection. The use of LpxL expressing Y. pestis allowed identification of the innate immune pathways critical for protection during Y. pestis infection. This model also established that CD14 recognition of rough LPS is critical for protection from Y. pestisexpressing LpxL, and activation of the IL-1 receptor and the induction of IL-1β plays a major role in this infection as well.

The lipid A acylation profile of gram negative bacteria can have a direct and profound effect on the pathogenesis of the organism. This work illustrates a previously unknown and critical aspect of Y. pestis pathogenesis, which can be extended to other gram-negative pathogens. The greater detail of the contributions which different host adaptor and receptor molecules make to the overall innate immune signaling pathway will allow a better insight into how gram negative infections progress and how they are counteracted by the immune system. Alterations of the lipid A profile of Y. pestis have important implications for the production of vaccines to Y. pestis and other gram negative pathogens. Taken together, this work describes a novel mechanism for immune evasion by gram negative bacteria with consequences for understanding the immune response and the creation of more effective vaccines, both of which will decrease the danger posed by this virulent pathogen.



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