Involvement of the autophagy pathway in trafficking of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacilli through cultured human type II epithelial cells

Cell Microbiol. 2012 Sep;14(9):1402-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1462-5822.2012.01804.x. Epub 2012 May 25.


Interactions between Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacilli and alveolar macrophages have been extensively characterized, while similar analyses in epithelial cells have not been performed. In this study, we microscopically examined endosomal trafficking of M. tuberculosis strain Erdman in A549 cells, a human type II pneumocyte cell line. Immuno-electron microscopic (IEM) analyses indicate that M. tuberculosis bacilli are internalized to a compartment labelled first with Rab5 and then with Rab7 small GTPase proteins. This suggests that, unlike macrophages, M. tuberculosis bacilli traffic to late endosomes in epithelial cells. However, fusion of lysosomes with the bacteria-containing compartment appears to be inhibited, as illustrated by IEM studies employing LAMP-2 and cathepsin-L antibodies. Examination by transmission electron microscopy and IEM revealed M. tuberculosis-containing compartments surrounded by double membranes and labelled with antibodies against the autophagy marker Lc3, providing evidence for involvement and intersection of the autophagy and endosomal pathways. Interestingly, inhibition of the autophagy pathway using 3-methyladenine improved host cell viability and decreased numbers of viable intracellular bacteria recovered after 72 h post infection. Collectively, these data suggest that trafficking patterns for M. tuberculosis bacilli in alveolar epithelial cells differ from macrophages, and that autophagy is involved this process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autophagy*
  • Cell Line
  • Endosomes / microbiology
  • Epithelial Cells / microbiology*
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology*
  • Epithelial Cells / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Microscopy, Immunoelectron
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / pathogenicity*