Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program



First Thesis Advisor

Egil Lien, PhD


Inflammasomes, Innate Immunity, Yersinia pestis, Virulence Factors, Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins


Dissertations, UMMS; Inflammasomes; Immunity, Innate; Yersinia pestis; Virulence Factors; Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins


Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague, is estimated to have claimed the lives of 30-50% of the European population in five years. Although it can now be controlled through antibiotics, there are still lurking dangers of outbreaks from biowarfare and bioterrorism; therefore, ongoing research to further our understanding of its strong virulence factors is necessary for development of new vaccines. Many Gram-negative bacteria, including Y. pseudotuberculosis, the evolutionary ancestor of Y. pestis, produce a hexa-acylated lipid A/LPS which can strongly trigger innate immune responses via activation of Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4)-MD2. In contrast, Y. pestis grown at 37ºC generates a tetra-acylated lipid A/LPS that poorly induces TLR4-mediated immune activation. We have reported that expression of E. coli lpxL in Y. pestis, which lacks a homologue of this gene, forces the biosynthesis of a hexa-acylated LPS, and that this single modification dramatically reduces virulence in wild type mice, but not in mice lacking a functional TLR4. This emphasizes that avoiding activation of innate immunity is important for Y. pestis virulence. It also provides a model in which survival is strongly dependent on innate immune defenses, presenting a unique opportunity for evaluating the relative importance of innate immunity in protection against bacterial infection. TLR signaling is critical for the sensing of pathogens, and one implication of TLR4 engagement is the induction of the pro-forms of the potent inflammatory cytokines IL-1β and IL-18. Therefore Y. pestis is able to suppress production of these which are generated through caspase-1-activating nucleotide-binding domain and leucine-rich repeat (NLR)-containing inflammasomes. For my thesis, I sought to elucidate the role of NLRs and IL-18/IL-1β during bubonic and pneumonic plague infection. Mice lacking IL-18 signaling led to increased susceptibility to wild type Y. pestis, and an attenuated strain producing a Y. pseudotuberculosis-like hexa-acylated lipid A. I found that the NLRP12, NLRP3 and NLRC4 inflammasomes were important protein complexes in maturing IL-18 and IL-1β during Y. pestis infection, and mice deficient in each of these NLRs were more susceptible to bacterial challenge. NLRC4 and NLRP12 also directed interferongamma production via induction of IL-18 against plague, and minimizing inflammasome activation may have been a central factor in evolution of the high virulence of Y. pestis. This is also the first study that elucidated a pro-inflammatory role for NLRP12 during bacterial infection.



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