Surface Polysaccharides of Francisella tularensis: Further Characterization, Role in Virulence, and Application to Novel Vaccine Strategies

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Virginia Tech

Francisella tularensis is a Gram-negative, zoonotic bacterium that causes tularemia in animals and humans. The two subspecies tularensis (Type A) and holarctica (Type B) are considered Tier I Select Agents due to the bioweapon potential of these subspecies. Type A strains, considered the more virulent of the subspecies, are highly infective producing respiratory tularemia with inhalation of as few as 10 cells. Due to classification as a Select Agent, a vast amount of F. tularensis research has occurred in the last two decades after the September 11th terrorism attack and the use of Bacillus anthracis spores in a biological attack on the United States Postal Services in 2001. This research has uncovered many of the various virulence factors of F. tularensis including an intracellular nature, the unique lipopolysaccharide produced, and a genetic pathogenicity island. This dissertation aims to further characterize outer surface antigens of F. tularensis subspecies in regards to virulence, biofilm formation, and role in vaccine development. In addition, this dissertation will also investigate the use of a novel vaccine delivery vehicle, alginate microencapsulation, in increasing the efficacy of these mutant strains.

F. novicida is a subspecies of F. tularensis and usually classified as being non-encapsulated. However, F. novicida has a similar capsule glycosylation locus as F. tularensis and could produce a similar capsule-like complex that has previously been described for the F. tularensis LVS strain. I was able to isolate and characterize this CLC of F. novicida, which contained a heterogenous mixture of proteins and possible glycosylated proteins. A mutant with a multi-gene interruption within the glycosylation locus (F. novicidaΔ1212-1218) produced significantly less carbohydrate than the parent strain, was attenuated in the mouse model, and was partially protective when used to immunize mice against a virulent challenge. Biofilms of F. novicida were also characterized in regards to biofilm formation in various growth media and biofilm formation of strains lacking the O-antigen of the lipopolysaccharide (LPS). In general, F. novicida produced the greatest amount of biofilm in a brain heart infusion (BHI) broth, compared to other media. Loss of the O-antigen led to increased biofilm production when grown in BHI and decreased or similar biofilm production as the wildtype when grown in other media. This highlights the need to carefully select the growth medium when assessing biofilm formation of Francisella strains in the future.

A final study of this dissertation characterized the use of alginate microspheres as a vaccine vehicle for an attenuated F. tularensis type A O-antigen deficient strain. O-antigen deficient strains of F. tularensis are highly attenuated in vivo and would be a safe choice for a vaccine candidate. However, these strains produce less than ideal protection against virulent challenge when used to immunize mice, possibly due to a lack of persistence in the host. In an attempt to increase persistence, we encapsulated an O-antigen deficient strain within sodium alginate microspheres and used those microspheres to immunize mice. The immunized mice produced a higher level of antibody response than mice immunized with a non-encapsulated version. However, this immunization only partially protected mice from a virulent challenge and did not match the protection afforded by the former Live Vaccine Strain (LVS). In part the deficiency in protection appears to be due to a lack of a robust cellular immune response in mice immunized with the alginate microspheres.

In summary, this dissertation focuses on the various extracellular polysaccharides of F. tularensis: the glycosylation of CLC, the O-antigen, and the biofilm. Each polysaccharide plays a role in the virulence and pathogenesis of F. tularensis. Glycosylation of the CLC and the O-antigen are important virulence factors in mammalian disease, and mutants lacking either (not type A strains) are attenuated in the mouse model. Both also appear to play a role in the formation of the F. tularensis biofilm in a manner dependent on the environment or culture medium used. Each of these extracellular polysaccharides contribute to the lifecycle of Francisella.

Francisella tularensis, Capsule-like Complex, Lipopolysaccharide, Alginate, Microencapsulation