Site-Directed Mutagenesis in Francisella Tularensis by Allelic
Francisella tularensis is a Gram-negative, facultative intracellular coccobacillus and the etiologic agent of tularemia for a wide variety of vertebrate and invertebrate animal species. Several species and subspecies of Francisella are currently recognized. However, the majority of infections are caused by F. tularensis subspecies tularensis (type A) and subspecies holarctica (type B). Given the low infectious dose, multiple transmission routes, severity of illness, and lack of licensed vaccines, F. tularensis has long been considered a potential biological weapon and is now classified as a category A select agent by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The investigation of the mechanisms of pathogenesis by F. tularensis type A and B strains is hindered by the difficulty and lack of methods to mutate the putative genes that encode for virulence factors. New genetic tools have been developed that have enabled mutagenesis of F. tularensis type A and type B stains. However, site-specific mutations remain difficult to execute or these methods generate random mutations. In this study a novel method was developed to create site-directed mutations in a putative capsule biosynthesis locus to knock out encapsulation of the attenuated F. tularensis live vaccine strain. Two suicide vectors for mutagenesis of F. tularensis were constructed based on the commercial PCR cloning vector pSC-A. These vectors were created by inserting into the cloning site a kanamycin resistance gene boarded upstream by 1.3 kb of N-terminal DNA and downstream by 1.3 kb of C-terminal DNA that flanks the target gene. Cryotransformation was used to introduce the vectors into F. tularensis. Open reading frame (ORF) FTT0793, which may encode for an ABC transporter involved in capsule export, was initially selected for mutagenesis in order to generate a mutant that was nonencapsulated, but could still synthesize capsule and induce a host immune response. Mutagenesis of this gene was successful. However, phenotypic assays could not confirm that the mutant was nonencapsulated compared to the parent. Therefore, adjacent ORFs FTT0798 and FTT0799, which may encode for a galactosyl transferase and mannosyl transferase, respectively, were also deleted to completely knock out capsule synthesis. The resulting mutant appeared to be nonencapsulated as determined by negative staining transmission electron microscopy.
In this study, a plasmid and method for generating allelic exchange mutants is reported, which should be useful for generating additional mutants of F. tularensis for use in clarifing the roles of specific genes. This vector is currently being used to make a nonencapsulated mutant of a virulent type A strain to determine the role of capsule in virulence.