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Mol Microbiol. 2003 Oct;50(1):115-28.

Deletion of vapA encoding Virulence Associated Protein A attenuates the intracellular actinomycete Rhodococcus equi.

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Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Virulent strains of the facultative intracellular bacterium Rhodococcus equi isolated from young horses (foals) with R. equi pneumonia, carry an 80-90 kb virulence plasmid and express a highly immunogenic 15-17 kDa protein of unknown function called VapA (Virulence Associated Protein A). Recent sequencing of the virulence plasmid identified a putative pathogenicity island encoding a novel family of seven Vap proteins including VapA. These proteins exhibit a significant sequence similarity to each other but have no homologues in other organisms. In this study, we describe the construction of an R. equi mutant lacking a 7.9 kb DNA region spanning five vap genes (vapA, -C, -D, -E and -F ). This vap locus mutant was attenuated for virulence in mice as it was unable to replicate in vivo and was rapidly cleared in comparison to the virulent wild-type strain. Complementation analysis of the vap locus mutant showed that expression of vapA alone could restore full virulence, whereas expression of vapC, -D and -E could not. We subsequently constructed an R. equi strain lacking only the vapA gene and found that it was attenuated for growth in vivo to the same degree as the vap locus mutant. Unlike wild-type R. equi which replicates intracellularly, both of the mutant strains exhibited a growth defect in macrophages although their attachment to the macrophages was unaffected. These studies provide the first proof of a role for vapA in the virulence of R. equi, and demonstrate that its presence is essential for intracellular growth in macrophages.

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