Intracellular pathogens such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis have evolved strategies for coping with the pressures encountered inside host cells. The ability to coordinate global gene expression in response to environmental and internal cues is one key to their success. Prolonged survival and replication within macrophages, a key virulence trait of M. tuberculosis, requires dynamic adaptation to diverse and changing conditions within its phagosomal niche. However, the physiological adaptations during the different phases of this infection process remain poorly understood. To address this knowledge gap, we have developed a multi-tiered approach to define the temporal patterns of gene expression in M. tuberculosis in a macrophage infection model that extends from infection, through intracellular adaptation, to the establishment of a productive infection. Using a clock plasmid to measure intracellular replication and death rates over a 14-day infection and electron microscopy to define bacterial integrity, we observed an initial period of rapid replication coupled with a high death rate. This was followed by period of slowed growth and enhanced intracellular survival, leading finally to an extended period of net growth. The transcriptional profiles of M. tuberculosis reflect these physiological transitions as the bacterium adapts to conditions within its host cell. Finally, analysis with a Transcriptional Regulatory Network model revealed linked genetic networks whereby M. tuberculosis coordinates global gene expression during intracellular survival. The integration of molecular and cellular biology together with transcriptional profiling and systems analysis offers unique insights into the host-driven responses of intracellular pathogens such as M. tuberculosis.
The impact of Mycobacterium tuberculosis on global health is undeniable, with ∼2 million deaths and ∼9 million new cases of tuberculosis each year. A key to the success of M. tuberculosis as a persistent, intracellular pathogen is its ability to survive for extended periods within professional phagocytes. Sustained growth within macrophage phagosomes requires avoiding or resisting antimicrobial mechanisms and adapting to replicate in a stressful, nutrient-restricted environment. Our understanding of the survival strategies, metabolism, and physiology of M. tuberculosis during intracellular growth remains incomplete. We employed multi-disciplinary approaches to gain new insights into adaptive responses that M. tuberculosis mobilizes to secure a productive infection. We simultaneously quantified replication and death rates, used electron microscopy to evaluate bacterial integrity, and determined the temporal changes in bacterial gene expression during a 14-day infection. By overlaying this temporal transcriptome dataset onto an extended Transcriptional Regulatory Network model, we identified regulatory pathways, stress responses, and metabolic adaptations activated during key physiological transitions over the 14 days of infection.