The disease cryptococcosis, caused by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, is acquired directly from environmental exposure rather than transmitted person-to-person. One explanation for the pathogenicity of this species is that interactions with environmental predators select for virulence. However, co-incubation of C. neoformans with amoeba can cause a “switch” from the normal yeast morphology to a pseudohyphal form, enabling fungi to survive exposure to amoeba, yet conversely reducing virulence in mammalian models of cryptococcosis. Like other human pathogenic fungi, C. neoformans is capable of microevolutionary changes that influence the biology of the organism and outcome of the host-pathogen interaction. A yeast-pseudohyphal phenotypic switch also happens under in vitro conditions. Here, we demonstrate that this morphological switch, rather than being under epigenetic control, is controlled by DNA mutation since all pseudohyphal strains bear mutations within genes encoding components of the RAM pathway. High rates of isolation of pseudohyphal strains can be explained by the physical size of RAM pathway genes and a hypermutator phenotype of the strain used in phenotypic switching studies. Reversion to wild type yeast morphology in vitro or within a mammalian host can occur through different mechanisms, with one being counter-acting mutations. Infection of mice with RAM mutants reveals several outcomes: clearance of the infection, asymptomatic maintenance of the strains, or reversion to wild type forms and progression of disease. These findings demonstrate a key role of mutation events in microevolution to modulate the ability of a fungal pathogen to cause disease.
Many diseases are contracted from the environment, rather than from sick people. It is unclear why those species are able to cause disease, since the selective pressures in the environment are presumed to be very different from those found within the host. Cryptococcus neoformans is a fungus that causes life-threatening lung and central nervous system disease in approximately one million people each year. The fungus is inhaled from environmental sources. One hypothesis to account for C. neoformans virulence is that amoeba are predators for this fungus, and surviving strains are pre-selected to be virulent in the human host. On the other hand, experiments have found that amoeba eat C. neoformans. A pseudohyphal cell type can survive, and while protecting against amoeba these cells are unable to cause disease in mouse models. We predicted that the pseudohyphal morphology reflected a change in function of a pathway of genes, and found that all pseudohyphal isolates contain mutations within genes for this pathway. The pseudohyphal trait is unstable, with reversion to normal yeast growth by counter-acting mutations. These mutations can occur during the course of mammalian infection. Our results show that mutation events account for a microevolution system currently described as phenotypic switching, and that mutations, at least under experimental conditions, can regulate pathogen adaptation and influence its host range.