The Coxiella Burnetii QpH1 Plasmid Is a Virulence Factor for Colonizing Bone Marrow-Derived Murine Macrophages

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Coxiella burnetii, intracellular pathogen, microbial pathogenesis, plasmid genetics, plasmid pathogenesis

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Coxiella burnetii strains carry one of four large, conserved, autonomously replicating plasmids (QpH1, QpRS, QpDV, or QpDG) or a QpRS-like chromosomally integrated sequence of unknown function. Here, we report the characterization of the QpH1 plasmid of C. burnetii Nine Mile phase II by making QpH1-deficient strains. A shuttle vector pQGK containing the CBUA0036 to CBUA0039a region (predicted as being required for QpH1 maintenance) was constructed. The pQGK vector can be stably transformed into Nine Mile II and maintained at a similar low copy number like QpH1. Importantly, transformation with pQGK cured the endogenous QpH1 due to plasmid incompatibility. Compared to a Nine Mile II transformant of an RSF1010-ori-based vector, the pQGK transformant shows a similar growth curve in both axenic media and Buffalo green monkey kidney cells, a variable growth defect in macrophage-like THP-1 cells depending on the origin of inoculum, and dramatically reduced ability to colonize wild-type bone marrow-derived murine macrophages. Furthermore, we found that CBUA0037 to CBUA0039 open reading frames (ORFs) are essential for plasmid maintenance, and CBUA0037 and CBUA0038 ORFs account for plasmid compatibility. In addition, plasmid-deficient C. burnetii can be isolated by using CBUA0037 or CBUA0038 deletion vectors. Furthermore, QpH1-deficient C. burnetii strains caused a lesser extent of splenomegaly in SCID mice, but, intriguingly, they had significant growth in SCID mouse-sourced macrophages. Taken together, our data suggest that QpH1 encodes a factor(s) essential for colonizing murine, not human, macrophages. This study suggests a critical role of QpH1 for C. burnetii persistence in rodents and expands the toolkit for genetic studies in C. burnetii.

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Journal of Bacteriology, v. 203, issue 9, art. e00588-20