Antibiotic modulation of capsular exopolysaccharide and virulence in Acinetobacter baumannii
February 13, 2015
Acinetobacter baumannii is an opportunistic pathogen of increasing importance due to its propensity for intractable multidrug-resistant infections in hospitals. All clinical isolates examined contain a conserved gene cluster, the K locus, which determines the production of complex polysaccharides, including an exopolysaccharide capsule known to protect against killing by host serum and to increase virulence in animal models of infection. Whether the polysaccharides determined by the K locus contribute to intrinsic defenses against antibiotics is unknown. We demonstrate here that mutants deficient in the exopolysaccharide capsule have lowered intrinsic resistance to peptide antibiotics, while a mutation affecting sugar precursors involved in both capsule and lipopolysaccharide synthesis sensitizes the bacterium to multiple antibiotic classes. We observed that, when grown in the presence of certain antibiotics below their MIC, including the translation inhibitors chloramphenicol and erythromycin, A. baumannii increases production of the K locus exopolysaccharide. Hyperproduction of capsular exopolysaccharide is reversible and non-mutational, and occurs concomitantly with increased resistance to the inducing antibiotic that is independent of the presence of the K locus. Strikingly, antibiotic-enhanced capsular exopolysaccharide production confers increased resistance to killing by host complement and increases virulence in a mouse model of systemic infection. Finally, we show that augmented capsule production upon antibiotic exposure is facilitated by transcriptional increases in K locus gene expression that are dependent on a two-component regulatory system, bfmRS. These studies reveal that the synthesis of capsule, a major pathogenicity determinant, is regulated in response to antibiotic stress. Our data are consistent with a model in which gene expression changes triggered by ineffectual antibiotic treatment cause A. baumannii to transition between states of low and high virulence potential, which may contribute to the opportunistic nature of the pathogen.