The Natural Alternative: Protozoa as Cellular Models for Legionella Infection

Cell Microbiol. 2014 Jan;16(1):15-26. doi: 10.1111/cmi.12235.


The severe pneumonia known as Legionnaires' disease occurs following infection by the Gram-negative bacterium Legionella pneumophila. Normally resident in fresh-water sources, Legionella are subject to predation by eukaryotic phagocytes such as amoeba and ciliates. To counter this, L. pneumophila has evolved a complex system of effector proteins which allow the bacteria to hijack the phagocytic vacuole, hiding and replicating within their erstwhile killers. These same mechanisms allow L. pneumophila to hijack another phagocyte, lung-based macrophages, which thus avoids a vital part of the immune system and leads to infection. The course of infection can be divided into five main categories: pathogen uptake, formation of the replication-permissive vacuole, intracellular replication, host cell response, and bacterial exit. L. pneumophila effector proteins target every stage of this process, interacting with secretory, endosomal, lysosomal, retrograde and autophagy pathways, as well as with mitochondria. Each of these steps can be studied in protozoa or mammalian cells, and the knowledge gained can be readily applied to human pathogenicity. Here we describe the manner whereby L. pneumophila infects host protozoa, the various techniques which are available to analyse these processes and the implications of this model for Legionella virulence and the pathogenesis of Legionnaires' disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alveolata*
  • Animals
  • Eukaryotic Cells / microbiology*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Humans
  • Legionella pneumophila / physiology*
  • Legionnaires' Disease*
  • Models, Theoretical