Humans inhale fungal conidia (i.e, vegetative spores) on a daily basis. The ability of the respiratory innate immune system to prevent germination of inhaled conidia into tissue-invasive hyphae represents a critical immunologic checkpoint. Using Aspergillus fumigatus, the most common etiologic agent of invasive aspergillosis, as a model system for human fungal pathogens, we discovered that conidia undergo programmed cell death with apoptosis-like features during interactions with innate immune cells. This finding was facilitated by a novel fluorescent reporter of fungal physiology that enables visualization and quantitation of fungal apoptosis markers, including histone degradation, caspase activation, and DNA fragmentation. Our work demonstrates that A. fumigatus conidia express an essential and druggable anti-apoptotic protein, termed Bir1, that counters host induction of apoptosis-like programmed cell death by the action of phagocyte NADPH oxidase. Genetic and pharmacologic studies demonstrate that Bir1 expression and activity underlie conidial susceptibility to host apoptosis-like programmed cell death, and in turn, host susceptibility to invasive aspergillosis. These findings indicate that mammalian fungal immune surveillance exploits a fungal apoptosis- like programmed cell death pathway to maintain barrier immunity in the lung. In this collaborative proposal with two co-investigators, we seek to determine the mechanism through which Bir1 regulates anti-apoptotic activity during fungal-host cell encounters. Our preliminary data support a model in which Bir1 exerts anti-apoptotic activity via two conserved BIR domains, underlies post-translational regulation in response to pro-apoptotic stress, regulates candidate fungal caspase-like enzymes as apoptosis effectors, and demonstrates functional conservation across human pathogenic fungi. Based on these observations, our model predicts that fungal apoptosis-like programmed cell death is a general feature of fungal-host cell encounters and central to the establishment of invasive fungal disease. We explore this model in the following aims: (1) define the functional domains and post-translational regulation of Bir1 critical for resistance to host induction of apoptosis-like programmed cell death, (2) define the mechanism of Bir1- mediated resistance to host induction of apoptosis-like programmed cell death, with an emphasis on regulation of a candidate fungal caspase-like activity, and (3) define the role of apoptosis-like programmed cell death and Bir1 homologs following Aspergillus nidulans and Candida albicans challenge. The proposed studies are significant and innovative because they identify a novel mechanism of immune surveillance and demonstrate that higher eukaryotes can exploit programmed cell death in lower eukaryotes for the purpose of sterilizing immunity. This work will provide a mechanistic understanding of Bir1 function in regulating host-fungal encounters. Knowledge gained from these studies will inform strategies that target fungal Bir1 homologs and exploit fungal apoptosis-like programmed cell death for therapeutic gain.
Aspergillus fumigatus is a fungal pathogen that causes invasive disease in humans with defects in immune function. Host immune surveillance against inhaled A. fumigatus spores relies on triggering an apoptosis-like programmed cell death pathway in fungal cells, a process that is countered by the action of a fungal anti-cell death protein, termed Bir1. This proposal seeks to delineate the mechanism through which Bir1 prevents the clearance of fungal spores and promotes invasive disease, and is likely to provide insight into the development of novel therapeutic strategies to target A. fumigatus and other human fungal pathogens. !