Identification of the microsporidian Encephalitozoon cuniculi as a new target of the IFNγ-inducible IRG resistance system

PLoS Pathog. 2014 Oct 30;10(10):e1004449. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004449. eCollection 2014 Oct.


The IRG system of IFNγ-inducible GTPases constitutes a powerful resistance mechanism in mice against Toxoplasma gondii and two Chlamydia strains but not against many other bacteria and protozoa. Why only T. gondii and Chlamydia? We hypothesized that unusual features of the entry mechanisms and intracellular replicative niches of these two organisms, neither of which resembles a phagosome, might hint at a common principle. We examined another unicellular parasitic organism of mammals, member of an early-diverging group of Fungi, that bypasses the phagocytic mechanism when it enters the host cell: the microsporidian Encephalitozoon cuniculi. Consistent with the known susceptibility of IFNγ-deficient mice to E. cuniculi infection, we found that IFNγ treatment suppresses meront development and spore formation in mouse fibroblasts in vitro, and that this effect is mediated by IRG proteins. The process resembles that previously described in T. gondii and Chlamydia resistance. Effector (GKS subfamily) IRG proteins accumulate at the parasitophorous vacuole of E. cuniculi and the meronts are eliminated. The suppression of E. cuniculi growth by IFNγ is completely reversed in cells lacking regulatory (GMS subfamily) IRG proteins, cells that effectively lack all IRG function. In addition IFNγ-induced cells infected with E. cuniculi die by necrosis as previously shown for IFNγ-induced cells resisting T. gondii infection. Thus the IRG resistance system provides cell-autonomous immunity to specific parasites from three kingdoms of life: protozoa, bacteria and fungi. The phylogenetic divergence of the three organisms whose vacuoles are now known to be involved in IRG-mediated immunity and the non-phagosomal character of the vacuoles themselves strongly suggests that the IRG system is triggered not by the presence of specific parasite components but rather by absence of specific host components on the vacuolar membrane.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Survival
  • Encephalitozoon cuniculi / growth & development
  • Encephalitozoon cuniculi / immunology*
  • Encephalitozoonosis / immunology*
  • Encephalitozoonosis / microbiology
  • Fibroblasts
  • GTP Phosphohydrolases / biosynthesis
  • GTP Phosphohydrolases / genetics
  • GTP Phosphohydrolases / immunology*
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Interferon-gamma / immunology*
  • Intracellular Membranes / immunology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Necrosis
  • Phagosomes / immunology
  • Vacuoles / immunology


  • Interferon-gamma
  • GTP Phosphohydrolases

Grant support

The Cologne laboratory was supported by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft SFB635, 670, 680, SPP1399 to JCH. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.