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PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e32418. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032418. Epub 2012 Mar 7.

A metalloproteinase secreted by Streptococcus pneumoniae removes membrane mucin MUC16 from the epithelial glycocalyx barrier.

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Schepens Eye Research Institute, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.


The majority of bacterial infections occur across wet-surfaced mucosal epithelia, including those that cover the eye, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and genitourinary tract. The apical surface of all these mucosal epithelia is covered by a heavily glycosylated glycocalyx, a major component of which are membrane-associated mucins (MAMs). MAMs form a barrier that serves as one of the first lines of defense against invading bacteria. While opportunistic bacteria rely on pre-existing defects or wounds to gain entry to epithelia, non opportunistic bacteria, especially the epidemic disease-causing ones, gain access to epithelial cells without evidence of predisposing injury. The molecular mechanisms employed by these non opportunistic pathogens to breach the MAM barrier remain unknown. To test the hypothesis that disease-causing non opportunistic bacteria gain access to the epithelium by removal of MAMs, corneal, conjunctival, and tracheobronchial epithelial cells, cultured to differentiate to express the MAMs, MUCs 1, 4, and 16, were exposed to a non encapsulated, non typeable strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae (SP168), which causes epidemic conjunctivitis. The ability of strain SP168 to induce MAM ectodomain release from epithelia was compared to that of other strains of S. pneumoniae, as well as the opportunistic pathogen Staphylococcus aureus. The experiments reported herein demonstrate that the epidemic disease-causing S. pneumoniae species secretes a metalloproteinase, ZmpC, which selectively induces ectodomain shedding of the MAM MUC16. Furthermore, ZmpC-induced removal of MUC16 from the epithelium leads to loss of the glycocalyx barrier function and enhanced internalization of the bacterium. These data suggest that removal of MAMs by bacterial enzymes may be an important virulence mechanism employed by disease-causing non opportunistic bacteria to gain access to epithelial cells to cause infection.

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