Expanding the Genetic Toolkit of Fusobacterium nucleatum by Generation of Fully-Sequenced Genomes and Discovery of Natural Competence

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Virginia Tech

The microbiome has long been an alluring target to study and recent advancements in microbial detection and omics-technologies has further revolutionized our view of how human diseases are impacted by the microbiome. A member of the human microbiome that has garnered such attention is Fusobacterium nucleatum, a Gram-negative, anaerobic bacterium, that normally inhabits the human oral cavity. Interestingly, F. nucleatum is highly invasive into surrounding cells and tissues of the periodontal pocket (below the gymline) and capable of disseminating throughout the entire body. Because of this, F. nucleatum is associated with a wide variety of diseases, most recently and strikingly, colorectal cancer. Despite the pathogenic potential of F. nucleatum, there is limited knowledge about the molecular mechanisms contributing to the invasive nature and virulence of this oral bacterium.

This gap in knowledge can be attributed to the absence of genetic tools and resources to investigate and study host-pathogen interactions of Fusobacterium. Progress in dissecting the role of Fusobacterium in disease has been hindered by a lack of fully sequenced and annotated genomes, and the absence of genetic systems to generate target virulence gene deletions to validate mechanisms contributing to host-pathogen interactions. Breakthroughs discussed in this work focus on developing and expanding the genetic toolkits and resources available for studying F. nucleatum interactions in relation to human health and disease.

As part of this work, herein, I introduce FusoPortal, an online database of fully sequenced and annotated Fusobacterium genomes, that enabled the bioinformatic annotation and correction of large protein encoding reading frames, that were previously misannotated. This database features a custom basic local alignment search tool (BLAST) server that establishes this resource as a powerful tool for identifying potential virulence factors that contribute to Fusobacterium pathogenesis. Most notably, FusoPortal facilitated my discovery of DNA uptake machinery involved in natural competence and transformation in F. nucleatum. This work is the first to characterize natural competence in a Fusobacterium species, and also enables the expansion of Fusobacterium genetics utilizing the newly found competence mechanism. The findings within this dissertation encompass a paradigm shift in efficient and robust tools to study F. nucleatum biology and pathogenesis. By creating tools for identifying key genes, proteins, and mechanisms involved in Fusobacterium induced or accelerated diseases, there is the potential to accelerate the development of novel therapeutics and vaccines against the emerging 'oncomicrobe' Fusobacterium nucleatum.

Fusobacterium, genetics, invasion, genomics, host-pathogen interaction, molecular biology, colorectal cancer, microbiome