Background: The dimorphic fungus Histoplasma capsulatum causes respiratory and systemic disease in mammalian hosts by expression of factors that enable survival within phagocytic cells of the immune system. Histoplasma's dimorphism is distinguished by growth either as avirulent mycelia or as pathogenic yeast. Geographically distinct strains of Histoplasma differ in their relative virulence in mammalian hosts and in production of and requirement for specific virulence factors. The close similarity in the genome sequences of these diverse strains suggests that phenotypic variations result from differences in gene expression rather than gene content. To provide insight into how the transcriptional program translates into morphological variation and the pathogenic lifestyle, we compared the transcriptional profile of the pathogenic yeast phase and the non-pathogenic mycelial phase of two clinical isolates of Histoplasma.
Results: To overcome inaccuracies in ab initio genome annotation of the Histoplasma genome, we used RNA-seq methodology to generate gene structure models based on experimental evidence. Quantitative analyses of the sequencing reads revealed 6% to 9% of genes are differentially regulated between the two phases. RNA-seq-based mRNA quantitation was strongly correlated with gene expression levels determined by quantitative RT-PCR. Comparison of the yeast-phase transcriptomes between strains showed 7.6% of all genes have lineage-specific expression differences including genes contributing, or potentially related, to pathogenesis. GFP-transcriptional fusions and their introduction into both strain backgrounds revealed that the difference in transcriptional activity of individual genes reflects both variations in the cis- and trans-acting factors between Histoplasma strains.
Conclusions: Comparison of the yeast and mycelial transcriptomes highlights genes encoding virulence factors as well as those involved in protein glycosylation, alternative metabolism, lipid remodeling, and cell wall glycanases that may contribute to Histoplasma pathogenesis. These studies lay an essential foundation for understanding how gene expression variations contribute to the strain- and phase-specific virulence differences of Histoplasma.