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J Clin Invest. 1997 Jul 1;100(1):68-73.

CpG motifs in bacterial DNA cause inflammation in the lower respiratory tract.

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Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine Division, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA.


Since unmethylated CpG motifs are more frequent in DNA from bacteria than vertebrates, and the unmethylated CpG motif has recently been reported to have stimulatory effects on lymphocytes, we speculated that bacterial DNA may induce inflammation in the lower respiratory tract through its content of unmethylated CpG motifs. To determine the role of bacterial DNA in lower airway inflammation, we intratracheally instilled prokaryotic and eukaryotic DNA in C3H/HeBFEJ mice and performed whole lung lavage 4 h after the exposure. Heat denatured, single stranded Escherichia coli genomic DNA (0.06 ng endotoxin/microg DNA) was compared to heat denatured, single stranded calf thymus DNA (0.007 endotoxin/microg DNA). 10 microg of bacterial DNA, in comparison to 10 microg of calf thymus DNA, resulted in a fourfold increase in the concentration of cells (P = 0.0002), a fivefold increase in the concentration of neutrophils (P = 0.0002), a 50-fold increase in the concentration of TNF-alpha (P = 0.001), and a fourfold increase in the concentration of both IL-6 (P = 0.0003) and macrophage inflammatory protein-2 (P = 0.0001) in the lavage fluid. Importantly, instillation of 0.60 ng of E. coli LPS resulted in a negligible inflammatory response. To test whether the stimulatory effects of bacterial DNA are due to its unmethylated CpG dinucleotides, we methylated the bacterial DNA and also prepared 20 base pair oligonucleotides with and without CpG motifs. In comparison to instillation of untreated bacterial DNA, methylation of the bacterial DNA resulted in a significant reduction in the concentration of cells and cytokines in the lower respiratory tract. Moreover, oligonucleotides containing embedded unmethylated CpG motifs resulted in inflammation in the lower respiratory tract that was indistinguishable from that observed with untreated bacterial DNA. In contrast, oligonucleotides without the embedded CpG motifs or with embedded but methylated CpG motifs resulted in significantly less inflammation in the lower respiratory tract. The possible relevance of these data to human disease was shown by extracting and analyzing DNA in sputum from patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). Approximately 0.1 to 1% of this sputum DNA was bacterial. Intratracheal instillation of highly purified CF sputum DNA caused acute inflammation similar to that induced by bacterial DNA. These findings suggest that bacterial DNA, and unmethylated CpG motifs in particular, may play an important pathogenic role in inflammatory lung disease.

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