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PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27972. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027972. Epub 2011 Nov 18.

Interactions between naïve and infected macrophages reduce Mycobacterium tuberculosis viability.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts, United States of America.


A high intracellular bacillary load of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in macrophages induces an atypical lysosomal cell death with early features of apoptosis that progress to necrosis within hours. Unlike classical apoptosis, this cell death mode does not appear to diminish M. tuberculosis viability. We previously reported that culturing heavily infected macrophages with naïve macrophages produced an antimicrobial effect, but only if naïve macrophages were added during the pre-necrotic phase of M. tuberculosis-induced cell death. In the present study we investigated the mechanism of antimicrobial activity in co-cultures, anticipating that efferocytosis of bacilli in apoptotic bodies would be required. Confocal microscopy revealed frustrated phagocytosis of M. tuberculosis-infected macrophages with no evidence that significant numbers of bacilli were transferred to the naïve macrophages. The antimicrobial effect of naïve macrophages was retained when they were separated from infected macrophages in transwells, and conditioned co-culture supernatants transferred antimicrobial activity to cultures of infected macrophages alone. Antimicrobial activity in macrophage co-cultures was abrogated when the naïve population was deficient in IL-1 receptor or when the infected population was deficient in inducible nitric oxide synthase. The participation of nitric oxide suggested a conventional antimicrobial mechanism requiring delivery of bacilli to a late endosomal compartment. Using macrophages expressing GFP-LC3 we observed the induction of autophagy specifically by a high intracellular load of M. tuberculosis. Bacilli were identified in LC3-positive compartments and LC3-positive compartments were confirmed to be acidified and LAMP1 positive. Thus, the antimicrobial effect of naïve macrophages acting on M. tuberculosis in heavily-infected macrophages is contact-independent. Interleukin-1 provides an afferent signal that induces an as yet unidentified small molecule which promotes nitric oxide-dependent antimicrobial activity against bacilli in autolysosomes of heavily infected macrophages. This cooperative, innate antimicrobial interaction may limit the maximal growth rate of M. tuberculosis prior to the expression of adaptive immunity in pulmonary tuberculosis.

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