Haemophilus responses to nutritional immunity: epigenetic and morphological contribution to biofilm architecture, invasion, persistence and disease severity

PLoS Pathog. 2013;9(10):e1003709. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003709. Epub 2013 Oct 10.


In an effort to suppress microbial outgrowth, the host sequesters essential nutrients in a process termed nutritional immunity. However, inflammatory responses to bacterial insult can restore nutritional resources. Given that nutrient availability modulates virulence factor production and biofilm formation by other bacterial species, we hypothesized that fluctuations in heme-iron availability, particularly at privileged sites, would similarly influence Haemophilus biofilm formation and pathogenesis. Thus, we cultured Haemophilus through sequential heme-iron deplete and heme-iron replete media to determine the effect of transient depletion of internal stores of heme-iron on multiple pathogenic phenotypes. We observed that prior heme-iron restriction potentiates biofilm changes for at least 72 hours that include increased peak height and architectural complexity as compared to biofilms initiated from heme-iron replete bacteria, suggesting a mechanism for epigenetic responses that participate in the changes observed. Additionally, in a co-infection model for human otitis media, heme-iron restricted Haemophilus, although accounting for only 10% of the inoculum (90% heme-iron replete), represented up to 99% of the organisms recovered at 4 days. These data indicate that fluctuations in heme-iron availability promote a survival advantage during disease. Filamentation mediated by a SulA-related ortholog was required for optimal biofilm peak height and persistence during experimental otitis media. Moreover, severity of disease in response to heme-iron restricted Haemophilus was reduced as evidenced by lack of mucosal destruction, decreased erythema, hemorrhagic foci and vasodilatation. Transient restriction of heme-iron also promoted productive invasion events leading to the development of intracellular bacterial communities. Taken together, these data suggest that nutritional immunity, may, in fact, foster long-term phenotypic changes that better equip bacteria for survival at infectious sites.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biofilms*
  • Chinchilla
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Haemophilus / physiology*
  • Haemophilus Infections / genetics
  • Haemophilus Infections / immunology
  • Haemophilus Infections / metabolism*
  • Haemophilus Infections / pathology
  • Heme / genetics
  • Heme / immunology
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Iron / immunology
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Otitis Media / genetics
  • Otitis Media / immunology
  • Otitis Media / metabolism*
  • Otitis Media / microbiology
  • Otitis Media / pathology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Time Factors


  • Heme
  • Iron