Bacillus anthracis secretes several virulence factors targeting different host organs and cell types during inhalational anthrax infection. The bacterial expression of a key virulence factor, lethal toxin (LeTx) is closely tied to another factor, edema toxin (EdTx). Both are transcribed on the same virulence plasmid (pXO1) and both have been the subject of much individual study. Their combined effect during virulent anthrax likely modulates both the global transcriptional and the phenotypic response of macrophages and phagocytes. In fact, responses brought about by the toxins may be different than each of their individual effects.
Here we report the transcriptional and apoptotic responses of the macrophage-like phagocytic cell line THP-1 exposed to B. anthracis Sterne (pXO1+) spores, and B. anthracis Δ Sterne (pXO1-) spores. These cells are resistant to LeTx-induced cytolysis, a phenotype seen in macrophages from several mouse strains which are sensitive to toxigenic anthrax infection. Our results indicate that the pXO1-containing strain induces higher pro-inflammatory transcriptional responses during the first 4 hours of interaction with bacterium, evident in the upregulation of several genes relevant to Nf-κB, phosphatases, prostaglandins, and TNF-α, along with decreases in expression levels of genes for mitochondrial components. Both bacterial strains induce apoptosis, but in the toxigenic strain-challenged cells, apoptosis is delayed.
This delay in apoptosis occurs despite the much higher level of TNF-α secretion induced by the toxigenic-strain challenge. Interestingly, CFLAR, an important apoptotic inhibitor which blocks apoptosis induced by large amounts of extracellular TNF-α, is upregulated significantly during toxigenic-strain infection, but not at all during non-toxigenic-strain infection, indicating that it may play a role in blocking or delaying TNF-α-mediated apoptosis. The suppression of apoptosis by the toxigenic anthrax strain is consistent with the notion that apoptosis itself may represent a protective host cell response.