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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 May 27;111(21):7801-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1400782111. Epub 2014 May 12.

Cheating by type 3 secretion system-negative Pseudomonas aeruginosa during pulmonary infection.

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Departments of Medicine and
Departments of Medicine andGraduate Program in Molecular and Cell Biology, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, CT 06518.
Departments of Medicine and.
Departments of Medicine andMicrobial Pathogenesis, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520; and


The opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa expresses a type 3 secretion system (T3SS) strongly associated with bacterial virulence in murine models and human patients. T3SS effectors target host innate immune mechanisms, and T3SS-defective mutants are cleared more efficiently than T3SS-positive bacteria by an immunocompetent host. Nonetheless, T3SS-negative isolates are recovered from many patients with documented P. aeruginosa infections, leading us to test whether T3SS-negative strains could have a selective advantage during in vivo infection. Mice were infected with mixtures of T3SS-positive WT P. aeruginosa plus isogenic T3SS-OFF or constitutively T3SS-ON mutants. Relative fitness of bacteria in this acute pneumonia model was reflected by the competitive index of mutants relative to WT. T3SS-OFF strains outcompeted WT PA103 in vivo, whereas a T3SS-ON mutant showed decreased fitness compared with WT. In vitro growth rates of WT and T3SS-OFF bacteria were determined under T3SS-inducing conditions and did not differ significantly. Increased fitness of T3SS-OFF bacteria was no longer observed at high ratios of T3SS-OFF to WT, a feature characteristic of bacterial cheaters. Cheating by T3SS-OFF bacteria occurred only when T3SS-positive bacteria expressed the phospholipase A2 effector Exotoxin U (ExoU). T3SS-OFF bacteria showed no fitness advantage in competition experiments carried out in immunodeficient MyD88-knockout mice or in neutrophil-depleted animals. Our findings indicate that T3SS-negative isolates benefit from the public good provided by ExoU-mediated killing of recruited innate immune cells. Whether this transient increase in fitness observed for T3SS-negative strains in mice contributes to the observed persistence of T3SS-negative isolates in humans is of ongoing interest.

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