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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Oct 28;105(43):16755-60. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0803815105. Epub 2008 Oct 20.

Induction of group A Streptococcus virulence by a human antimicrobial peptide.

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  • 1Division of Infectious Diseases, Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Group A streptococci (Streptococcus pyogenes or GAS) freshly isolated from individuals with streptococcal sore throat or invasive ("flesh-eating") infection often grow as mucoid colonies on primary culture but lose this colony appearance after laboratory passage. The mucoid phenotype is due to abundant production of the hyaluronic acid capsular polysaccharide, a key virulence determinant associated with severe GAS infections. These observations suggest that signal(s) from the human host trigger increased production of capsule and perhaps other virulence factors during infection. Here we show that subinhibitory concentrations of the human antimicrobial cathelicidin peptide LL-37 stimulate expression of the GAS capsule synthesis operon (hasABC). Up-regulation is mediated by the CsrRS 2-component regulatory system: it requires a functional CsrS sensor protein and can be antagonized by increased extracellular Mg(2+), the other identified environmental signal for CsrS. Up-regulation was also evident for other CsrRS-regulated virulence genes, including the IL-8 protease PrtS/ScpC and the integrin-like/IgG protease Mac/IdeS, findings that suggest a coordinated GAS virulence response elicited by this antimicrobial immune effector peptide. LL-37 signaling through CsrRS led to a marked increase in GAS resistance to opsonophagocytic killing by human leukocytes, an in vitro measure of enhanced GAS virulence, consistent with increased expression of the antiphagocytic capsular polysaccharide and Mac/IdeS. We propose that the human cathelicidin LL-37 has the paradoxical effect of stimulating CsrRS-regulated virulence gene expression, thereby enhancing GAS pathogenicity during infection. The ability of GAS to sense and respond to LL-37 may explain, at least in part, the unique susceptibility of the human species to streptococcal infection.

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