The polysaccharide capsule of Streptococcus pneumoniae defines over ninety serotypes, which differ in their carriage prevalence and invasiveness for poorly understood reasons. Recently, an inverse correlation between carriage prevalence and oligosaccharide structure of a given capsule has been described. Our previous work suggested a link between serotype and growth in vitro. Here we investigate whether capsule production interferes with growth in vitro and whether this predicts carriage prevalence in vivo. Eighty-one capsule switch mutants were constructed representing nine different serotypes, five of low (4, 7F, 14, 15, 18C) and four of high carriage prevalence (6B, 9V, 19F, 23F). Growth (length of lag phase, maximum optical density) of wildtype strains, nontypeable mutants and capsule switch mutants was studied in nutrient-restricted Lacks medium (MLM) and in rich undefined brain heart infusion broth supplemented with 5% foetal calf serum (BHI+FCS). In MLM growth phenotype depended on, and was transferred with, capsule operon type. Colonization efficiency of mouse nasopharynx also depended on, and was transferred with, capsule operon type. Capsule production interfered with growth, which correlated inversely with serotype-specific carriage prevalence. Serotypes with better growth and higher carriage prevalence produced thicker capsules (by electron microscopy, FITC-dextran exclusion assays and HPLC) than serotypes with delayed growth and low carriage prevalence. However, expression of cpsA, the first capsule gene, (by quantitative RT-PCR) correlated inversely with capsule thickness. Energy spent for capsule production (incorporation of H3-glucose) relative to amount of capsule produced was higher for serotypes with low carriage prevalence. Experiments in BHI+FCS showed overall better bacterial growth and more capsule production than growth in MLM and differences between serotypes were no longer apparent. Production of polysaccharide capsule in S. pneumoniae interferes with growth in nutrient-limiting conditions probably by competition for energy against the central metabolism. Serotype-specific nasopharyngeal carriage prevalence in vivo is predicted by the growth phenotype.
Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria are responsible for serious human infections including meningitis, pneumonia and bacteraemia and are a common cause of otitis media (ear infection) in children. However, they most often reside harmlessly in the infant nasopharynx. An association has long been observed between the type of polysaccharide capsule surrounding the bacteria and harmless colonization versus invasive disease. Here we suggest that capsule types that are costly for the bacteria to make are produced in lower quantities and their production limits the growth of the bacteria in nutrient-restricted conditions. In contrast, bacteria with capsules that require less energy can produce more capsule and grow more successfully. This may be an explanation for why S. pneumoniae with certain capsule types can be effective long-term colonizers of the nasopharynx while others need a richer nutritional environment to flourish and so are most often associated with invasive disease. This information may be of use when considering which capsules types to target in future vaccines.