Macrophage apoptosis in response to high intracellular burden of Mycobacterium tuberculosis is mediated by a novel caspase-independent pathway

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy & Critical Care

Publication Date


Document Type



Animals; *Apoptosis; Calcium; Caspase 3; Caspases; Cathepsins; Cells, Cultured; Chelating Agents; Macrophages; Mice; Mycobacterium tuberculosis; Phagocytes; *Signal Transduction; Toll-Like Receptors


Life Sciences | Medicine and Health Sciences


We previously reported that macrophage exposure to attenuated strains of pathogenic mycobacteria at multiplicities of infection (MOI) < or = 10 triggers TNF-alpha-mediated apoptosis which reduces the viability of intracellular bacilli. Virulent strains were found to suppress macrophage apoptosis, and it was proposed that apoptosis is an innate defense against intracellular Mycobacterium tuberculosis analogous to apoptosis of virus-infected cells. The potential similarity of host cell responses to intracellular infection with mycobacteria and viruses suggests that M. tuberculosis might lyse infected macrophage when that niche is no longer needed. To investigate this question, we challenged murine macrophages with high intracellular bacillary loads. A sharp increase in cytolysis within 24 h was observed at MOI > or = 25. The primary death mode was apoptosis, based on nuclear morphology and phosphatidyl serine exposure, although the apoptotic cells progressed rapidly to necrosis. Apoptosis at high MOI differs markedly from low MOI apoptosis: it is potently induced by virulent M. tuberculosis, it is TNF-alpha-independent, and it does not reduce mycobacterial viability. Caspase inhibitors failed to prevent high MOI apoptosis, and macrophages deficient in caspase-3, MyD88, or TLR4 were equally susceptible as wild type. Apoptosis was reduced in the presence of cathepsin inhibitors, suggesting the involvement of lysosomal proteases in this novel death response. We conclude that the presence of high numbers of intracellular M. tuberculosis bacilli triggers a macrophage cell death pathway that could promote extracellular spread of infection and contribute to the formation of necrotic lesions in tuberculosis.

DOI of Published Version



J Immunol. 2006 Apr 1;176(7):4267-74.

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Journal of immunology (Baltimore, Md. : 1950)

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