Life in an unusual intracellular niche: a bacterial symbiont infecting the nucleus of amoebae

ISME J. 2014 Aug;8(8):1634-44. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2014.5. Epub 2014 Feb 6.


Amoebae serve as hosts for various intracellular bacteria, including human pathogens. These microbes are able to overcome amoebal defense mechanisms and successfully establish a niche for replication, which is usually the cytoplasm. Here, we report on the discovery of a bacterial symbiont that is located inside the nucleus of its Hartmannella sp. host. This symbiont, tentatively named 'Candidatus Nucleicultrix amoebiphila', is only moderately related to known bacteria (∼90% 16S and 23S rRNA sequence similarity) and member of a novel clade of protist symbionts affiliated with the Rickettsiales and Rhodospirillales. Screening of 16S rRNA amplicon data sets revealed a broad distribution of these bacteria in freshwater and soil habitats. 'Candidatus Nucleicultrix amoebiphila' traffics within 6 h post infection to the host nucleus. Maximum infection levels are reached after 96-120 h, at which time point the nucleus is pronouncedly enlarged and filled with bacteria. Transmission of the symbionts occurs vertically upon host cell division but may also occur horizontally through host cell lysis. Although we observed no impact on the fitness of the original Hartmannella sp. host, the bacteria are rather lytic for Acanthamoeba castellanii. Intranuclear symbiosis is an exceptional phenomenon, and amoebae represent an ideal model system to further investigate evolution and underlying molecular mechanisms of these unique microbial associations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acanthamoeba / microbiology
  • Alphaproteobacteria / classification*
  • Alphaproteobacteria / genetics
  • Alphaproteobacteria / isolation & purification
  • Cell Nucleus / microbiology*
  • Hartmannella / microbiology*
  • Hartmannella / ultrastructure
  • Host Specificity
  • Phylogeny
  • Symbiosis