Coxiella burnetii is a ubiquitous zoonotic bacterial pathogen and the cause of human acute Q fever, a disabling influenza-like illness. Coxiella's former obligate intracellular nature significantly impeded genetic characterization of putative virulence factors. However, recent host cell-free (axenic) growth of the organism has enabled development of shuttle vector, transposon, and inducible gene expression technologies, with targeted gene inactivation remaining an important challenge. To this end, we developed two methods of targeted gene deletion in Coxiella that exploit pUC/ColE1 ori-based suicide plasmids encoding sacB for positive selection of mutants. As proof of concept, Coxiella dotA and dotB, encoding structural components of the type IVB secretion system (T4BSS), were selected for deletion. The first method exploited Cre-lox-mediated recombination. Two suicide plasmids carrying different antibiotic resistance markers and a loxP site were integrated into 5'and 3'flanking regions of dotA. Transformation of this strain with a third suicide plasmid encoding Cre recombinase resulted in deletion of dotA under sucrose counterselection. The second method utilized a loop-in/loop out strategy to delete dotA and dotB. A single suicide plasmid was first integrated into 5'or 3'target gene flanking regions. Resolution of the plasmid co-integrant by a second crossover event under sucrose counterselection resulted in gene deletion that was confirmed by PCR and Southern blot. dotA and dotB mutants failed to secrete T4BSS substrates and to productively infect host cells. The repertoire of Coxiella genetic tools now allows traditional mutation and complementation strategies for virulence factor discovery. Over 30 knockout strains have now been constructed, including those with deletions in additional Dot/Icm genes and genes encoding verified T4BSS substrates. These mutants will dramatically aid functional studies of both the secretion apparatus and secreted effector proteins. The Coxiella T4BSS secretes proteins with effector functions directly into the host cell cytosol. Coxiella also appears to engage in type II-like secretion directly into the pathogen-occupied vacuole where secreted proteins likely modify the lumenal microenvironment to promote pathogen replication. Sliver staining combined with mass spectrometry revealed multiple Coxiella proteins in acidified citrate cysteine medium (ACCM) harvested from log phase cultures, most of which are annotated as signal peptide-containing hypothetical proteins. Active secretion of a subset of proteins by Coxiella was confirmed using bacteria transformed with plasmids encoding C-terminal 3x-FLAG-tagged proteins expressed from an anhydrotetracycline-inducible promoter. Secretion by wild type bacteria was eliminated upon removal of the Sec-dependent signal sequence. The only defined virulence factor of Coxiella is LPS. Virulent phase I organisms with full-length LPS transition to avirulent phase II organisms with severely truncated LPS upon repeated in vitro passage. Given the critical importance of LPS to Coxiella virulence, it is important to understand the molecular basis of phase variation. The high passage phase II isolates in our stock collection are not clonal and contain a small subpopulation of Coxiella still expressing full-length phase I LPS. The resulting mixed genotype complicates identification of indels (insertions/deletions) strictly associated with phase variation. To circumvent this problem, we used micromanipulation to isolate clonal phase II populations of high passage Nine Mile, Australia and California isolates. By hybridizing their genomic DNA to a high-density microarray that contains probe sets encompassing the entire genome of the Nine Mile phase I isolate, common indels in phase II organisms were identified that may account for defective LPS biosynthesis. Central to Coxiella pathogenesis is an intracellular biphasic developmental cycle that generates two distinct morphological variants that can be distinguished by ultrastructure and protein composition. Small cell variants (SCV) are non-replicative forms that display condensed chromatin and are considered extracellular survival forms. SCVs differentiate into replicative large cell variants (LCVs) with dispersed chromatin. Transition of LCV back to SCV occurs coincident with entry of Coxiella into stationary growth phase with nearly homogeneous SCVs present with extended incubation (2 to 4 weeks) of infected cell cultures. As an amenable model to help better understand the biological relevance of Coxiella, differentiation, we established that SCV/LCV transitions are recapitulated by organisms growing in host cell-free (axenic) ACCM. This discovery enables studies of Coxiella developmental biology without experimental difficulties encountered with host cell-propagated bacteria.

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Beare, Paul A; Jeffrey, Brendan M; Long, Carrie M et al. (2018) Genetic mechanisms of Coxiella burnetii lipopolysaccharide phase variation. PLoS Pathog 14:e1006922
Millar, Jess A; Beare, Paul A; Moses, Abraham S et al. (2017) Whole-Genome Sequence of Coxiella burnetii Nine Mile RSA439 (Phase II, Clone 4), a Laboratory Workhorse Strain. Genome Announc 5:
Sandoz, Kelsi M; Beare, Paul A; Cockrell, Diane C et al. (2016) Correction for Sandoz et al., Complementation of Arginine Auxotrophy for Genetic Transformation of Coxiella burnetii by Use of a Defined Axenic Medium. Appl Environ Microbiol 82:3695
Sandoz, Kelsi M; Beare, Paul A; Cockrell, Diane C et al. (2016) Complementation of Arginine Auxotrophy for Genetic Transformation of Coxiella burnetii by Use of a Defined Axenic Medium. Appl Environ Microbiol 82:3042-51
Larson, Charles L; Martinez, Eric; Beare, Paul A et al. (2016) Right on Q: genetics begin to unravel Coxiella burnetii host cell interactions. Future Microbiol 11:919-39
Beare, Paul A; Sandoz, Kelsi M; Larson, Charles L et al. (2014) Essential role for the response regulator PmrA in Coxiella burnetii type 4B secretion and colonization of mammalian host cells. J Bacteriol 196:1925-40
Sandoz, Kelsi M; Sturdevant, Daniel E; Hansen, Bryan et al. (2014) Developmental transitions of Coxiella burnetii grown in axenic media. J Microbiol Methods 96:104-10
Beare, Paul A; Heinzen, Robert A (2014) Gene inactivation in Coxiella burnetii. Methods Mol Biol 1197:329-45
Omsland, Anders; Hackstadt, Ted; Heinzen, Robert A (2013) Bringing culture to the uncultured: Coxiella burnetii and lessons for obligate intracellular bacterial pathogens. PLoS Pathog 9:e1003540
Beare, Paul A; Larson, Charles L; Gilk, Stacey D et al. (2012) Two systems for targeted gene deletion in Coxiella burnetii. Appl Environ Microbiol 78:4580-9

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