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Infect Immun. 2001 Aug;69(8):4931-7.

FlhA, a component of the flagellum assembly apparatus of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, plays a role in internalization by corneal epithelial cells.

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  • 1The Morton D. Sarver Laboratory for Cornea and Contact Lens Research, School of Optometry, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720-2020, USA. fleiszig@socrates.berkeley.edu


Pseudomonas aeruginosa invades various epithelial cell types in vitro and in vivo. The P. aeruginosa genome possesses a gene (flhA) which encodes a protein that is believed to be part of the export apparatus for flagellum assembly and which is homologous to invA of Salmonella spp. Because invA is required for invasion of Salmonella spp., a role for flhA in P. aeruginosa invasion was explored using cultured rabbit corneal epithelial cells. An flhA mutant of P. aeruginosa strain PAO1 was constructed and was shown to be nonmotile. Complementation with flhA in trans restored motility. Corneal cells were infected for 3 h with the wild type (PAO1), the flhA mutant, the flhA mutant complemented with flhA in trans, an flhA mutant containing the plasmid vector control, or an fliC mutant (nonmotile mutant control). Invasion was quantified by amikacin exclusion assays. Both the flhA and the fliC mutants invaded at a lower level than the wild-type strain did, suggesting that both fliC and flhA played roles in invasion. However, loss of motility was not sufficient to explain the reduced invasion by flhA mutants, since centrifugation of bacteria onto cells did not restore invasion to wild-type levels. Unexpectedly, the flhA mutant adhered significantly better to corneal epithelial cells than wild-type bacteria or the fliC mutant did. The percentage of adherent bacteria that invaded was reduced by approximately 80% for the flhA mutant and approximately 50% for the fliC mutant, showing that only part of the role of flhA in invasion involves fliC. Invasion was restored by complementing the flhA mutant with flhA in trans but not by the plasmid vector control. Intracellular survival assays, in which intracellular bacteria were enumerated after continued incubation in the presence of antibiotics, showed that although flhA and fliC mutants had a reduced capacity for epithelial cell entry, they were not defective in their ability to survive within those cells after entry. These results suggest that the flagellum assembly type III secretion system plays a role in P. aeruginosa invasion of epithelial cells. Since the flhA mutants were not defective in their ability to adhere to corneal epithelial cells, to retain viability at the cell surface, or to survive inside epithelial cells after entry, the role of flhA in invasion of epithelial cells is likely to occur during the process of bacterial internalization.

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