Upon infection, our immune cells produce a small protein called interferon, which in turn signals a protective response through a series of biochemical reactions that involves lowering the cells' ability to make cholesterol by targeting a gene essential for controlling the pathway for cholesterol metabolism.
Little is known about the protective role of inflammatory processes in modulating lipid metabolism in infection. Here we report an intimate link between the innate immune response to infection and regulation of the sterol metabolic network characterized by down-regulation of sterol biosynthesis by an interferon regulatory loop mechanism. In time-series experiments profiling genome-wide lipid-associated gene expression of macrophages, we show a selective and coordinated negative regulation of the complete sterol pathway upon viral infection or cytokine treatment with IFNγ or β but not TNF, IL1β, or IL6. Quantitative analysis at the protein level of selected sterol metabolic enzymes upon infection shows a similar level of suppression. Experimental testing of sterol metabolite levels using lipidomic-based measurements shows a reduction in metabolic output. On the basis of pharmacologic and RNAi inhibition of the sterol pathway we show augmented protection against viral infection, and in combination with metabolite rescue experiments, we identify the requirement of the mevalonate-isoprenoid branch of the sterol metabolic network in the protective response upon statin or IFNβ treatment. Conditioned media experiments from infected cells support an involvement of secreted type 1 interferon(s) to be sufficient for reducing the sterol pathway upon infection. Moreover, we show that infection of primary macrophages containing a genetic knockout of the major type I interferon, IFNβ, leads to only a partial suppression of the sterol pathway, while genetic knockout of the receptor for all type I interferon family members, ifnar1, or associated signaling component, tyk2, completely abolishes the reduction of the sterol biosynthetic activity upon infection. Levels of the proteolytically cleaved nuclear forms of SREBP2, a key transcriptional regulator of sterol biosynthesis, are reduced upon infection and IFNβ treatment at both the protein and de novo transcription level. The reduction in srebf2 gene transcription upon infection and IFN treatment is also found to be strictly dependent on ifnar1. Altogether these results show that type 1 IFN signaling is both necessary and sufficient for reducing the sterol metabolic network activity upon infection, thereby linking the regulation of the sterol pathway with interferon anti-viral defense responses. These findings bring a new link between sterol metabolism and interferon antiviral response and support the idea of using host metabolic modifiers of innate immunity as a potential antiviral strategy.
Currently, little is known about the crosstalk between the body's immune and metabolic systems that occurs after viral infection. This work uncovers a previously unappreciated physiological role for the cholesterol-metabolic pathway in protecting against infection that involves a molecular link with the protein interferon, which is made by immune cells and known to “interfere” with viral replication. We used a clinically relevant model based on mouse cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection of bone-marrow-derived cells. Upon infection these cells produce high levels of interferon as part of the innate-immune response, which we show in turn signals through the interferon receptor resulting in lowering enzyme levels on the cholesterol pathway. We observed this effect with a range of other viruses, and in each case it leads to a notable drop in the metabolites involved in the cholesterol pathway. We found that the control mechanism involves regulation by interferon of an essential transcription factor, named SREBP-2, which coordinates the gene activity of the cholesterol pathway. This mechanism may explain clinical observations of reduced cholesterol levels in patients receiving interferon treatment. Our initial investigation into how lowered cholesterol might protect against viral infection reveals that the protection is not due to a requirement of the virus for cholesterol itself but instead involves a particular side-branch of the pathway that chemically links lipids to proteins. Drugs such as statins and small interfering RNAs that block this part of the pathway are also shown to protect against CMV infection of cells in culture and in mice. This provides the first example of targeting a host metabolic pathway in order to protect against an acute infection.