The soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is a pathogen of insects and nematodes and is very closely related to, if not the same species as, Bacillus cereus and Bacillus anthracis. The defining characteristic of B. thuringiensis that sets it apart from B. cereus and B. anthracis is the production of crystal (Cry) proteins, which are pore-forming toxins or pore-forming proteins (PFPs). Although it is known that PFPs are important virulence factors since their elimination results in reduced virulence of many pathogenic bacteria, the functions by which PFPs promote virulence are incompletely understood. Here we study the effect of Cry proteins in B. thuringiensis pathogenesis of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. We find that whereas B. thuringiensis on its own is not able to infect C. elegans, the addition of the PFP Cry protein, Cry5B, results in a robust lethal infection that consumes the nematode host in 1-2 days, leading to a "Bob" or bag-of-bacteria phenotype. Unlike other infections of C. elegans characterized to date, the infection by B. thuringiensis shows dose-dependency based on bacterial inoculum size and based on PFP concentration. Although the infection process takes 1-2 days, the PFP-instigated infection process is irreversibly established within 15 minutes of initial exposure. Remarkably, treatment of C. elegans with Cry5B PFP is able to instigate many other Bacillus species, including B. anthracis and even "non-pathogenic" Bacillus subtilis, to become lethal and infectious agents to C. elegans. Co-culturing of Cry5B-expressing B. thuringiensis with B. anthracis can result in lethal infection of C. elegans by B. anthracis. Our data demonstrate that one potential property of PFPs is to sensitize the host to bacterial infection and further that C. elegans and probably other roundworms can be common hosts for B. cereus-group bacteria, findings with important ecological and research implications.
© 2011 Kho et al.