DNA mutations mediate microevolution between host-adapted forms of the pathogenic fungus Cryptococcus neoformans

PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(10):e1002936. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002936. Epub 2012 Oct 4.


The disease cryptococcosis, caused by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, is acquired directly from environmental exposure rather than transmitted person-to-person. One explanation for the pathogenicity of this species is that interactions with environmental predators select for virulence. However, co-incubation of C. neoformans with amoeba can cause a "switch" from the normal yeast morphology to a pseudohyphal form, enabling fungi to survive exposure to amoeba, yet conversely reducing virulence in mammalian models of cryptococcosis. Like other human pathogenic fungi, C. neoformans is capable of microevolutionary changes that influence the biology of the organism and outcome of the host-pathogen interaction. A yeast-pseudohyphal phenotypic switch also happens under in vitro conditions. Here, we demonstrate that this morphological switch, rather than being under epigenetic control, is controlled by DNA mutation since all pseudohyphal strains bear mutations within genes encoding components of the RAM pathway. High rates of isolation of pseudohyphal strains can be explained by the physical size of RAM pathway genes and a hypermutator phenotype of the strain used in phenotypic switching studies. Reversion to wild type yeast morphology in vitro or within a mammalian host can occur through different mechanisms, with one being counter-acting mutations. Infection of mice with RAM mutants reveals several outcomes: clearance of the infection, asymptomatic maintenance of the strains, or reversion to wild type forms and progression of disease. These findings demonstrate a key role of mutation events in microevolution to modulate the ability of a fungal pathogen to cause disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / genetics
  • Amoeba / physiology
  • Animals
  • Cryptococcosis / microbiology*
  • Cryptococcosis / transmission
  • Cryptococcus neoformans / cytology
  • Cryptococcus neoformans / genetics*
  • Cryptococcus neoformans / metabolism
  • Cryptococcus neoformans / pathogenicity*
  • DNA, Fungal / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Fungal Proteins / genetics
  • Genes, Fungal*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Hyphae / genetics*
  • Hyphae / growth & development
  • Mice
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutation*
  • Phenotype
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins / genetics
  • Selection, Genetic


  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • DNA, Fungal
  • Fungal Proteins
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins
  • TAO3 protein, S cerevisiae

Associated data

  • GENBANK/GU903010
  • GENBANK/HM770879
  • GENBANK/JX297541