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Infect Immun. 2014 Feb;82(2):476-90. doi: 10.1128/IAI.01196-13. Epub 2013 Nov 25.

Reversible lipid accumulation and associated division arrest of Mycobacterium avium in lipoprotein-induced foamy macrophages may resemble key events during latency and reactivation of tuberculosis.

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Centre d'Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy (CIML), INSERM UMR 1104, CNRS UMR 7280, Aix-Marseille University, UM 2, Marseille, France.


During the dormant phase of tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis persists in lung granulomas by residing in foamy macrophages (FM) that contain abundant lipid bodies (LB) in their cytoplasm, allowing bacilli to accumulate lipids as intracytoplasmic lipid inclusions (ILI). An experimental model of FM is presented where bone marrow-derived mouse macrophages are infected with M. avium and exposed to very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) as a lipid source. Quantitative analysis of detailed electron microscope observations showed the following results. (i) Macrophages became foamy, and mycobacteria formed ILI, for which host triacylglycerides, rather than cholesterol, was essential. (ii) Lipid transfer occurred via mycobacterium-induced fusion between LB and phagosomes. (iii) Mycobacteria showed a thinned cell wall and became elongated but did not divide. (iv) Upon removal of VLDL, LB and ILI declined within hours, and simultaneous resumption of mycobacterial division restored the number of mycobacteria to the same level as that found in untreated control macrophages. This showed that the presence of ILI resulted in a reversible block of division without causing a change in the mycobacterial replication rate. Fluctuation between ILI either partially or fully extending throughout the mycobacterial cytoplasm was suggestive of bacterial cell cycle events. We propose that VLDL-driven FM constitute a well-defined cellular system in which to study changed metabolic states of intracellular mycobacteria that may relate to persistence and reactivation of tuberculosis.

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