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Vet Microbiol. 1997 Jun 16;56(3-4):257-68.

Pathogenesis and virulence of Rhodococcus equi.

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Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY 10461, USA. hondalus@aecom.yu


Inhalation of the soil-borne organism, Rhodococcus equi, can lead to a chronic and severe pyogranulomatous pneumonia in young horses and immunocompromised people. In addition, ulcerative colitis is a common sequela to infection in foals, and dissemination from the lung to other body sites is not uncommon in either the horse or man. Although the facultative intracellular bacterium is susceptible to neutrophil-mediated killing, it is able to resist innate macrophage defenses and establish residence within the intracellular environment of that phagocyte. Definitive virulence factors of R. equi have not yet been determined, but potential candidates include capsular polysaccharide, the exoenzyme cholesterol oxidase, cell wall mycolic acids, and the products encoded by a virulence-associated plasmid. The ability to replicate within the macrophage is associated with virulence, and correlates in animals with the possession of a large plasmid and expression of the plasmid-encoded, surface-expressed lipoprotein, VapA. All strains of R. equi isolated from horses with clinical disease possess a large plasmid and express VapA antigens. In addition, bacterial clearance and granuloma development in mice is linked to plasmid possession and VapA expression. Plasmid containing strains replicate within the tissues of the mouse. whereas plasmid-cured strains are rapidly cleared. At present, the function of the VapA protein is unknown. In contrast to what is observed in the foal, only a small percentage of R. equi strains isolated from humans with rhodococcal disease express VapA antigens, although a high proportion of others express a related protein which is associated with reduced virulence and is also plasmid-encoded. In a limited number of plasmid-negative human isolates, virulence has been linked to beta-lactam resistance, and preliminary evidence suggests that the phenotype may be phage encoded. It is likely that the immune status of the patient can influence whether a particular strain of R. equi is able to produce clinical disease, and certainly experimental infection in mice has confirmed that an intact cellular immune response is necessary for clearance of the organism.

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