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J Infect Dis. 2011 May 1; 203(9): 1264–1273.
Published online 2011 Feb 21. doi:  10.1093/infdis/jir010
PMCID: PMC3069727

Designed Reduction of Streptococcus pneumoniae Pathogenicity via Synthetic Changes in Virulence Factor Codon-pair Bias


In this study, we used a previously described method of controlling gene expression with computer-based gene design and de novo DNA synthesis to attenuate the virulence of Streptococcus pneumoniae. We produced 2 S. pneumoniae serotype 3 (SP3) strains in which the pneumolysin gene (ply) was recoded with underrepresented codon pairs while retaining its amino acid sequence and determined their ply expression and pneumolysin production in vitro and their virulence in a mouse pulmonary infection model. Expression of ply and production of pneumolysin of the recoded SP3 strains were decreased, and the recoded SP3 strains were less virulent in mice than the wild-type SP3 strain or a Δply SP3 strain. Further studies showed that the least virulent recoded strain induced a markedly reduced inflammatory response in the lungs compared with the wild-type or Δply strain. These findings suggest that reducing pneumococcal virulence gene expression by altering codon-pair bias could hold promise for rational design of live-attenuated pneumococcal vaccines.

Codon-pair bias (CPB) defines a phenomenon whereby the codons that encode 2 sequential amino acids are found adjacent to one another with a higher or lower frequency than would be expected if their placement was random [1, 2]. CPB is observed across the kingdoms of life, can be quantified statistically [1, 2], and is independent of codon usage [3, 4]. Although the frequency of some of the 3,721 possible codon pairs is shared across species, species-specific codon-pair representations are distinct [5]. It has been shown elsewhere that synthetic recoding of adjacent codon pairs with underrepresented codon pairs decreases translation efficiency for poliovirus and influenza A virus, resulting in attenuation of their virulence in vivo [1, 6].

Streptococcus pneumoniae is the leading cause of pneumonia in adults and children in the United States and globally [7]. Use of the 7-valent pneumococcal capsular polysaccharide-protein conjugate vaccine has led to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of invasive pneumococcal disease in children and adults, due to herd immunity [8]. A reformulation with additional serotypes, including S. pneumoniae serotype 3 (SP3), was recently introduced to address the problem of serotype replacement [9]. However, reports of severe SP3 disease [10, 11], the failure of investigational conjugate vaccines to reliably protect against SP3 [12], and the emergence of drug-resistant SP3 strains [13] underscore the need for a vaccine that can protect against SP3. Given the efficacy of candidate experimental whole-cell vaccines against multiple serotypes in mice [14] and the fact that pneumolysin (PLY), the 54-kDa toxin of S. pneumoniae [15], has already been validated as a candidate vaccine antigen [16], we used CPB customization to decrease pneumolysin gene (ply) expression in a SP3 strain and determined the effect of modulating ply expression on virulence in vivo.



Female BALB/c mice 6–8 weeks of age were obtained from the National Cancer Institute Mouse Repository (Fredrick, MD). All mouse experiments were performed according to the rules, regulations, and ethical standards for animal use of the Animal Institute of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM).

SP3 Strains and Growth Conditions

The SP3 strains constructed in this study are shown in Table 1. The wild-type A66.1 and WU2 strains were originally provided by David Briles (University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL) [17, 18]. All cultures were begun with single colonies from a tryptic-soy agar–blood agar plate (TSA-BAP). Single colonies were inoculated into 15 mL of tryptic-soy broth (TSB) and grown at 37°C with .5% carbon dioxide (CO2) for 15 h, and then diluted 1:100 in TSB or Todd-Hewitt broth (THB) and grown at 37°C with .5% CO2.

Table 1.
Streptococcus pneumoniae Strains, Plasmids, and Pneumolysin Codon-pair Bias

Calculation of SP3 Codon-pair Representation and ply CPB Customization

The genomic sequence of strain SP3-BS71 (Center for Genomic Sciences, Allegheny-Singer Research Institute, Pittsburgh, PA; GenBank ID, AAZZ00000000.1) was used for calculations [19]. The CPB of the open reading frames of SP3 was calculated using previously defined computer algorithms, as described elsewhere [1]. Briefly, the statistical representation of all 3,721 codon pairs in all annotated SP3 open reading frames was defined by a codon-pair score (CPS), which quantifies individual codon-pair representation based on the log ratio of each pair's observed occurrence to its expected occurrence [1]. The CPB of a gene is the mean CPS of the codon pairs in the gene. A positive CPS indicates statistical overrepresentation and a negative CPS indicates underrepresentation of the codon pair relative to the expected frequency if codon pair representation was random. The CPB of ply was customized to use underrepresented codons with previously defined software, as described elsewhere [1]. Constructs with underrepresented codons were synthesized (Blue Heron Biotechnology) and used to produce recombinant SP3 strains.

Transformation of SP3 and Construction of Recoded Strains

Transformation of SP3 was performed as described elsewhere [20], using the plasmids in Table 1 with some modifications. A 1:100 dilution of A66.1 or WU2 was grown to an optical density at 550 nm (OD550) of .032 in THB supplemented with .16% bovine serum albumin and .5% yeast extract. Next, the pH of the culture was adjusted to 7.8 with 1 mol/L sodium hydroxide (NaOH), and a 1-mL aliquot was supplemented with 10 μL of 1 mol/L calcium chloride (CaCl2), 50 μL of a 50 μg/mL solution of Competence-Stimulating Peptide 2 (Anaspec Inc.), and 800 ng of plasmid DNA (containing ply constructs) and incubated at 30°C for 90 min, after which it was diluted 1:10 and plated on TSA-BAP containing kanamycin. Drug-resistant colonies were selected and genomic integration of synthetic ply was confirmed by sequencing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) using the primers in Table 2. The kanamycin resistance gene was maintained in all constructed strains upstream of ply to ensure strain purity.

Table 2.
Primers Used in Sequencing of Pneumolysin Locus and Cloning of Plasmids

Hemolytic Assay

The hemolytic activity of the PLY produced by SP3 strains was determined as described elsewhere [21]. Hemolytic activity was expressed in hemolytic units (HUs) whereby 1 HU was the reciprocal of the dilution at which 100% of red blood cells lyse. A standard curve based on purified PLY, whereby 1 HU = 1.69 ng of PLY, was used to convert HUs to nanograms [22, 23].

Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) Quantification and Western Blot Detection of PLY

PLY was detected in bacterial lysates by ELISA and Western blot analysis as described elsewhere [24, 25]. Anti-PLY antibodies (mouse monoclonal immunoglobulin G [IgG] anti-PLY and polyclonal rabbit IgG anti-PLY) were used for the ELISA, and mouse monoclonal IgG anti-PLY was used for Western blot analysis [25]. Lysates were obtained from bacterial pellets of S. pneumoniae cultures, which were centrifuged, re-suspended in phosphate-buffered saline, normalized to an OD550 of .4, incubated at 37°C for 60 min, and spun at 10,000 g for 1 min, after which the supernatants were concentrated by centrifugation through Amicon 30K centrifugal units (Millipore) and used for ELISA or Western blot analysis according to methods published elsewhere [24, 25]. Positive and negative controls for both assays were purified PLY and lysate from A66:Δply, respectively.

Survival of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

The virulence of wild-type and recoded SP3 strains was determined in an intranasal infection model as described elsewhere [26]. Groups of 10 mice each were inoculated intranasally with 5 × 104 colony-forming units (CFUs) of S. pneumoniae in 40 μL of TSB and monitored daily for their clinical status.

Bacterial Burden of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

Lung and blood CFUs were counted 48 h after infection. Separate groups of mice, infected as described above, were bled from the orbital sinus and killed, and lung tissue was removed and homogenized. Blood was diluted in TSB and plated. Serial dilutions of lung homogenates and blood were plated on TSA-BAP and CFUs were enumerated. The limit of detection of this method is 10 CFUs.

Lung Cellular Profiles of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

Cellular profiles in the lungs of SP3-infected mice were determined by flow cytometry as described elsewhere [27] with separate groups of mice infected as described above. Polymorphoneutrophils (PMNs), B cells, and T cells were analyzed to determine the effect of PLY on cellular subsets previously found to contribute to resistance and susceptibility to A66.1 [27]. After 48 h, mice were killed, lungs were extracted and placed in 5 mL of digestion buffer, and samples that were obtained with the GentleMACS cell separation system (Miltenyi Biotec) were incubated at 37°C for 30 min, filtered, washed 3 times in staining buffer, and resuspended. Control mice were injected with TSB. Cellular Fc receptors were blocked with anti-CD16/32 (BD Pharmingen) for 15 min on ice and then incubated with cell surface receptor-specific antibodies for 30 min on ice, washed twice in cold staining buffer, fixed with cold 2% formaldehyde at 25°C for 30 min, washed, and analyzed. The antibodies used were CD45 Pacific for CD45+ cells, CD3 Alex 488 for CD3+ cells, CD Alex 700 for CD4+ cells, CD8 phycoerythrin-Cy7 for CD8+ cells, Ly6G fluorescein isothiocyanate for Ly6G+ cells, and CD19 phycoerythrin-Cy7 for CD19+ cells (BD Pharmingen). Events (105 events per sample) were collected on a LSR II cytometer using DiVa software (BD Biosciences, Version 4.1) and analyzed with FlowJo software (Tree Star, Version 9.2 for Mac) first by gating on live cells in the forward and side scatter and then with nested gating. Cell counts were defined as the percentage of CD45+CD3+CD4+ or CD8+ cells for T cells, CD45+CD19+ cells for B cells, and CD45+Ly6G+ cells for PMNs as a function of the total number of cells.

Cytokine Levels in Lungs of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

Cytokine levels in the lungs of SP3-infected mice were determined 48 h after infection as described elsewhere [27] with separate groups of mice infected as described above. Mice were killed 48 h after infection and their lungs were removed, homogenized as described above, and centrifuged at 3,000 g for 30 min. The supernatants were spun at 10,000 g for 15 min and used for the detection of cytokines with the ELISA Duoset kit (R&D Systems) used according to the manufacturer's protocol.

In Vitro Dendritic Cell (DC) Gene Expression Induced by SP3 Strains

The effect of S. pneumoniae on DC gene expression was determined ex vivo as described elsewhere [28], with modification for lung DCs. DCs were isolated from naïve BALB/c mouse lungs with the Dendritic Cell Enrichment Set beads and iMag magnet (BD Biosciences) according to the manufacturer's protocol and incubated with S. pneumoniae strains at a multiplicity of infection of 10 for 3.5 h at 37°C with .5% CO2 as described elsewhere [28], after which 100 μg/mL gentamicin was added, leaving DCs in culture. After 18 h, DCs were lysed, RNA was isolated with the RNeasy kit (Qiagen), and complementary DNA was synthesized with the Maxima FirstStrand kit (Fermentas). Reverse-transcription PCR (RT-PCR) was performed as described elsewhere [29] using TaqMan Master Mix (Applied Biosystems) and primers for nitric oxide synthase 2 (NOS2), interleukin 12 (IL-12), CD86 antigen (CD86), indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase 1 (IDO1), apoptosis-related cysteine peptidase (Casp1), and chemokine (C-X-C motif) ligand 9 (CXCL9) (SABiosciences). These genes were selected on the basis of previous studies of the effect of PLY on the DC response to S. pneumoniae [28, 30]. Samples were analyzed with the StepOnePlus system (Applied Biosystems). The glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase gene (Gapdh) was used as an internal control.

Serum Pneumococcal Antibody Titers

Surviving mice were bled 28 d after infection, and recoded SP3 levels and serum titers of antibody to pneumococcal capsular polysaccharide (PPS) [31] and whole bacteria (A66.1) [14, 24] were determined by ELISA as described above.

Re-infection of Surviving Mice

Surviving mice that had been infected with recoded SP3 were re-infected intranasally with 105 CFUs of A66.1 (15 times the median lethal dose) 42 d after primary infection, and survival was monitored.

Statistical Analysis

Statistical analyses were performed with Prism software (version 5.0c for Macintosh; GraphPad). For all statistical evaluations, a 2-tailed P value of <.05 was considered significant. For normally distributed data, the Student t test was used. For mouse survival, the Kaplan-Meier log-rank test was used. A 1-way analysis of variance was used to compare the curves of HUs in culture supernatants.


Construction of Synthetically Recoded SP3 ply With Altered CPB

Two recoded DNA constructs with negative CPB, ply−.47 and ply−.19, were designed (Table 1). A negative CPB indicates that the gene is encoded primarily with underrepresented codon pairs. The synthetic gene ply−.47 had more underrepresented codon pairs, with a CPB of −.472, than did ply−.19, which had a CPB of −.194. Both genes had a more negative CPB than did the wild-type ST3 ply (CPB, .095) (Table 1). CPB customization maintained the primary amino acid sequence of ply.

SP3 strains expressing recoded ply genes were produced by transforming A66.1 with the synthesized DNA constructs pPM2 and pPM4 to produce 2 synthetically modified SP3 strains, A66:PM2 and A66:PM4, respectively (Table 1; Figure 1). The homologous regions HR5′ and HR3′ of each construct had a sequence identical to that of wild-type A66.1 ply and were 800 bp in length. A ply-deleted strain, A66:Δply, was produced by transformation of A66.1 with a synthesized knockout plasmid pΔPLY (Table 1; Figure 1), and a reconstituted ply strain was constructed using synthesized pPLY (Table 1). We also recoded ply in WU2, another SP3 strain that is commonly used in pneumococcal research [18, 26, 31], by transformation with pPM4 to produce WU2:PM4. All strains exhibited similar growth kinetics in vitro (data not shown).

Figure 1.
Synthetic constructs for genomic integration of designed pneumolysin genes (ply) of Streptococcus pneumoniae. Synthetic DNA constructs used for transformation and recombination were inserted in plasmids designated pPM4, pPM2, and pΔPLY (Table ...

Biological Activity of Recoded SP3 ply

The impact of CPB alteration on ply expression was determined with an in vitro hemolytic assay (Figure 2A). A66:PM4 produced the fewest Hus, and A66:PM2 produced significantly more HUs than A66:PM4 but significantly fewer HUs than wild-type A66.1. A66:Δply did not produce detectible HUs (not shown). SP3 strain WU2 produced significantly more PLY than WU2:PM4 (Figure 2B). The higher amount of PLY produced by WU2 has been reported elsewhere [23]. The total PLY production of A66.1 was significantly greater than that of equally diluted lysates of A66:PM2 and A66:PM4 by ELISA (Figure 2C). A66.1, A66:PM2, and A66:PM4 produced PLY of equal size (52 kDa) on a Western blot (Figure 2D).

Figure 2.
Hemolytic activity and quantification of pneumolysin (PLY) produced by wild-type, ply-deleted, and ply-recoded Streptococcus pneumoniae serotype 3 strains. A, Hemolytic activity of PLY in the supernatant of growing S. pneumoniae strains measured over ...

Mouse Virulence of SP3 Strains

The lethality of the SP3 strains in BALB/c mice is shown in Figure 3A. A66:PM4 was significantly less lethal than A66.1 and A66:Δply. The lethality of A66:PM2 was statistically comparable to that of A66:PM4 (P = .09) but significantly less that of than A66.1 and A66:Δply. The lethality of 66:Δply and A66.1 was comparable.

Figure 3.
Survival and bacterial burden of mice infected with wild-type, pneumolysin gene (ply)–deleted, and ply-recoded Streptococcus pneumoniae serotype 3 (SP3) strains. A. Survival of BALB/c mice after intranasal infection with 5 × 104 colony-forming ...

Bacterial Burden of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

A66:PM4-infected mice had no detectable CFUs in the blood and significantly fewer CFUs in the lungs than A66.1- or A66:Δply-infected mice 48 h after infection (Figures 3B and 3C). Lung and blood CFUs of A66.1- and A66:Δply-infected mice were comparable (Figures 3B and 3C).

Cellular Profiles in the Lungs of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

Lung cellular profiles exhibited strain-specific differences 48 h after infection. A66:PM4-infected mice had significantly more CD4+ and CD8+ T and B cells than either A66.1- or A66:Δply-infected mice (Figures 4A–4C). A66.1-infected mice had more PMNs (Ly6G+ cells) than either A66:PM4- or A66:Δply-infected mice (Figure 4D). Amounts of DCs were comparable in mice infected with each SP3 strain (data not shown). Hence, A66:PM4-infected mice had fewer lung neutrophils and more T and B cells than A66.1- or A66:Δply-infected mice.

Figure 4.
Cellular profiles of the lungs of mice infected with wild-type, pneumolysin gene (ply)–deleted, and ply-recoded Streptococcus pneumoniae serotype 3 strains, showing flow cytometric characterization of the indicated cells in the lungs of BALB/c ...

Lung Inflammatory Response of Mice Infected With SP3 Strains

Levels of interleukin 6 (IL-6), interleukin 17 (IL-17), interleukin 22 (IL-22), interleukin 12p40 (IL-12p40), interleukin 10 (IL-10), and macrophage inflammatory protein 2 (MIP-2) in lung homogenates were determined by ELISA 48 h after infection to assess TH1, TH2, and TH17 immunity (Figure 5A). A66:PM4-infected mice had lower levels of IL-6 than A66.1-infected mice and lower levels of IL-22 and higher levels of IL-10 than A66.1- and A66:Δply-infected mice. MIP-2 levels were higher among A66.1-infected mice than among A66:Δply- and A66:PM4-infected mice, and IL-17 levels were higher among A66.1-infected mice than among A66:Δply-infected mice. Hence, A66:PM4-infected mice had higher levels of IL-10 and lower levels of IL-17, MIP-2, and IL-22 than A66.1- or A66:Δply-infected mice.

Figure 5.
Effect of wild-type, pneumolysin gene (ply)–deleted, and ply-recoded Streptococcus pneumoniae serotype 3 (SP3) strains on cytokine levels in the lungs of infected mice and lung dendritic cell (DC) gene expression in vitro. A, Concentration of ...

Gene Expression of Naïve BALB/c DCs Infected With SP3 Strains In Vitro

DC gene expression was analyzed in naïve DCs stimulated by A66.1, A66:PM4, and A66:Δply by means of quantitative RT-PCR (Figure 5B). Casp1 expression was higher in A66.1-stimulated DCs than in A66:Δply-stimulated DCs. NOS-2, IL-12β, and CXCL9 expression were each lower in A66:Δply-stimulated DCs than in A66.1- or A66:PM4-stimulated DCs; CXCL9 expression was undetectable in A66:Δply-stimulated DCs. IDO1 expression was higher in A66:PM4-stimulated DCs than in A66.1- or A66:Δply-stimulated DCs.

Antibody Response of A66:PM4-infected Mice

Eight (80%) of 10 A66:PM4-infected mice survived primary infection. Serologic analysis on 4 of these mice 28 d after infection showed they produced antibodies to whole bacteria (Figure 6A), PPS (Figure 6B), and PLY (Figure 6C). All surviving mice were infected with A66.1 on day 42 after primary infection with A66:PM4, and 4 (80%) of these 5 mice survived (Figure 6D).

Figure 6.
Antibody titers in serum samples of surviving A66:PM4-infected mice and their survival following challenge with A66.1. A, Serum levels of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin M (IgM) to whole wild-type (Wt) A66.1 determined by whole-cell enzyme-linked ...


In this study, synthetic gene design enabled modulation of SP3 ply expression and investigation of the effect of reduced, rather than absent, PLY production in vivo in experiments comparing the virulence of ply-expressing and ply-deleted SP3 strains in a mouse model of pneumococcal pneumonia. Heretofore, it has only been possible to evaluate the effect of PLY on the pathogenesis of S. pneumoniae with wild-type and ply-deleted strains [14, 3234]. PLY production has been shown to stimulate innate immunity and bacterial clearance [35] and induce PMN and CD4+ T cell recruitment [36, 37]. Sublytic concentrations of PLY promote CD4+ T cell migration [37], pro-inflammatory cytokine secretion by mononuclear phagocytes [38], CXCL chemokine secretion by DCs [30], and mast cell antimicrobial peptide secretion [39]. The data herein suggest that the lower level of PLY production achieved by synthetic alteration of A66.1 ply resulted in beneficial immune stimulation, T cell recruitment, and bacterial clearance in vivo.

The synthetically modified SP3 strains A66:PM4 and A66:PM2 were less virulent in mice than either wild-type A66.1 or A66:Δply. The rate and level of PLY production and the resistance phenotype of the ply recoded strains was a function of the use of underrepresented codon pairs, with the caveat that although more A66:PM2 than A66.1-infected mice survived, the survival of A66:PM4- and A66:PM2-infected mice was comparable statistically. Interestingly, A66:Δply was as lethal as wild-type A66.1 in our model. Although a ply-deleted S. pneumoniae serotype 2 (SP2) strain was previously shown to be avirulent in mice [32], ply-deleted S. pneumoniae serotype 6A and serotype 8 strains were virulent [14, 33]. Consistent with our findings, PLY was shown to enhance resistance to SP3 (WU2) in mice [35]. A66:PM4 and wild-type A66.1 induced higher levels of DC pro-inflammatory gene expression in vitro than A66:Δply, but only A66:PM4-infected mice exhibited bacterial clearance. Hence our data suggest that the exuberant inflammatory response of wild-type A66.1-infected mice, as evidenced by their high lung levels of IL-17, IL-6, and MIP-2, and the absence of PLY-associated immune stimulation in A66:Δply-infected mice each result in an inability to promote bacterial clearance. Interestingly and relevant to our findings with A66:Δply, the Staphylococcus aureus toxin Panton-Valentine leukocidin was also recently shown to be required for bacterial clearance in mice [40].

PLY influenced IL-17 production in our model, as A66:PM4- and A66:Δply-infected mice each had fewer lung neutrophils and lower levels of IL-17 than wild-type A66.1-infected mice. These results underscore the previously reported importance of PLY in inducing neutrophil chemoattractants, PMN migration, and IL-17 in neutrophil recruitment [35, 4143]. Although PLY and IL-17 were required for nasopharyngeal clearance of ST6B and ST23F in mice [34, 42], a recent study found that lung CFUs and survival were comparable in TH17-deficient and wild-type mice in an A66.1 pulmonary infection model [27]. Given that high levels of PLY inhibit neutrophil function [44], the lung bacterial burden in A66.1-infected mice could in part reflect a failure of neutrophil-mediated bacterial clearance.

The levels of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in the lungs of A66:PM4-infected mice were higher than those of A66.1- or A66:Δply-infected mice. Although CD4+ T cells were shown to promote neutrophil recruitment and bacterial clearance in a SP2 infection model [37], they were recently shown to be detrimental in another SP2 model [45] and dispensable for survival in a SP3 (A66.1) model [27]. In the latter study, CD8+ T cells were required for resistance to lethal infection, which was associated with B cell recruitment, fewer lung PMNs, and a less exuberant TH17 response [27]. The data herein also show that A66:PM4-infected mice had a higher level of CD8+ T cells, fewer PMNs, and less IL-17 than wild-type A66.1-infected mice. A66:PM4-infected mice also had more lung B cells and higher levels of IL-10 than A66.1- and A66:Δply-infected mice. IL-10 was previously shown to improve survival in antibiotic-treated mice by dampening inflammation in a mouse SP3 pneumonia model [46]. Given the identification of an IL-10-producing regulatory B cell subset [47], it is possible that the lung IL-10 in A66:PM4-infected mice could originate from B cells. Although this hypothesis requires further study, our data link survival of A66:PM4-infected mice to production of this immunoregulatory mediator.

A66:PM4 and A66.1 induced DC expression of cellular activation (NOS-2) and chemokine (Il-12β and CXCL9) genes, whereas A66:Δply-stimulated DCs exhibited less pro-inflammatory gene expression. These results parallel those of previous studies that have linked PLY to pro-inflammatory and apoptotic mediator expression in human or bone-marrow-derived mouse DCs [30, 48]. Interestingly, A66:PM4 induced more DC IDO1 expression than either of the other strains. Given that IDO can modulate lung inflammation in mice [49], this is another mechanism by which A66:PM4 could have modulated the inflammatory response in our model. The decreased induction of Casp1 could enhance bacterial clearance in the setting of A66:PM4 infection, given that apoptosis of DCs has been linked to high levels of PLY [48]. Taken together, our findings suggest that the hypothesis that A66:PM4 stimulates lung DCs or other cells to produce immunoregulatory mediators that control S. pneumoniae–induced inflammation deserves further investigation.

The data herein provide proof of the principle that PLY production can be regulated by synthetic alteration of ply and suggest that synthetic gene customization could hold promise in the development of a universal vaccine for S. pneumoniae. By recoding rather than eliminating genes, wild-type epitopes are maintained. This is an advantage over knockout strategies, as demonstrated by our finding that A66:PM4-infected mice produced antibodies to PPS, PLY, and other bacterial antigens and were protected against wild-type A66.1 challenge. Anti-PLY antibodies, which can confer protection against S. pneumoniae in mice [50], would not be generated with a knockout vaccine strain. In our model, infection with A66:PM4 resulted in immunity to SP3, which was associated with lung T and B cell recruitment and IL-10 production. Expression of ply, albeit less than that of wild-type A66.1, was required for bacterial clearance. Either too much (wild-type) or the absence (A66:Δply) of ply expression was associated with a lethal phenotype in our model, with an intermediate amount (A66:PM4) being protective. Although we note that the effect of ply expression on virulence could be serotype-specific, the data herein suggest that modulation of virulence gene expression warrants further consideration as an approach to the design of a live-attenuated and/or universal S. pneumoniae vaccine.


This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH; grant numbers R01AI045459, R01AI044374 to L.P.); and the Ruth L. Kirschstein Molecular Pathogenesis Training Grant, NIH (grant number 5T32AI007506 to J.R.C.).


We appreciate the assistance of Berta Burd from the Laboratory for Macromolecular Analysis and Proteomics facility at AECOM for her assistance with Western blot resolution. We thank Catherine Manix for her assistance with the fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) and cytokine sample preparation, Wendy Szymczak for her assistance with RT-PCR troubleshooting, and Shruti Gohil for her help with FlowJo analysis of FACS data.


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