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Following escape into the cytoplasm of host cells, Burkholderia pseudomallei and the related species Burkholderia thailandensis employ the type VI secretion system 5 (T6SS-5) to induce plasma membrane fusion with an adjacent host cell. This process leads to the formation of multinucleated giant cells and facilitates bacterial access to an uninfected host cell in a direct manner. Despite its importance in virulence, the mechanism of the T6SS-5 and the role of host cell factors in cell-cell fusion remain elusive. To date, the T6SS-5 is the only system of bacterial origin known to induce host-cell fusion. To gain insight into the nature of T6SS-5-stimulated membrane fusion, we investigated the contribution of cholesterol and proteins exposed on the host cell surface, which were shown to be critically involved in virus-mediated giant cell formation. In particular, we analyzed the effect of host cell surface protein and cholesterol depletion on the formation of multinucleated giant cells induced by B. thailandensis. Acute protease treatment of RAW264.7 macrophages during infection with B. thailandensis followed by agarose overlay assays revealed a strong reduction in the number of cell-cell fusions compared with EDTA treated cells. Similarly, proteolytic treatment of specifically infected donor cells or uninfected recipient cells significantly decreased multinucleated giant cell formation. Furthermore, modulating host cell cholesterol content by acute cholesterol depletion from cellular membranes by methyl- β-cyclodextrin treatment or exogenous addition of cholesterol impaired the ability of B. thailandensis to induce cell-cell fusions. The requirement of physiological cholesterol levels suggests that the membrane organization or mechanical properties of the lipid bilayer influence the fusion process. Altogether, our data suggest that membrane fusion induced by B. pseudomallei and B. thailandensis involves a complex interplay between the T6SS-5 and the host cell.


Liam Whiteley, Maria Haug, Kristina Klein, Matthias Willmann, Erwin Bohn, Salvatore Chiantia, Sandra Schwarz. Cholesterol and host cell surface proteins contribute to cell-cell fusion induced by the Burkholderia type VI secretion system 5. PloS one. 2017;12(10):e0185715

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PMID: 28973030

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