Gliotoxin Suppresses Macrophage Immune Function by Subverting Phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-Trisphosphate Homeostasis

mBio. 2016 Apr 5;7(2):e02242. doi: 10.1128/mBio.02242-15.


Aspergillus fumigatus, an opportunistic fungal pathogen, spreads in the environment by releasing numerous conidia that are capable of reaching the small alveolar airways of mammalian hosts. In otherwise healthy individuals, macrophages are responsible for rapidly phagocytosing and eliminating these conidia, effectively curbing their germination and consequent invasion of pulmonary tissue. However, under some circumstances, the fungus evades phagocyte-mediated immunity and persists in the respiratory tree. Here, we report thatA. fumigatusescapes macrophage recognition by strategically targeting phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-trisphosphate [PtdIns(3,4,5)P3] metabolism through gliotoxin, a potent immunosuppressive mycotoxin. Time-lapse microscopy revealed that, in response to the toxin, macrophages cease to ruffle, undergo abrupt membrane retraction, and fail to phagocytose large targets effectively. Gliotoxin was found to prevent integrin activation and interfere with actin dynamics, both of which are instrumental for phagocytosis; similar effects were noted in immortalized and primary phagocytes. Detailed studies of the underlying molecular mechanisms of toxicity revealed that inhibition of phagocytosis is attributable to impaired accumulation of PtdIns(3,4,5)P3and the associated dysregulation of downstream effectors, including Rac and/or Cdc42. Strikingly, in response to the diacylglycerol mimetic phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate, gliotoxin-treated macrophages reactivate beta integrins, reestablish actin dynamics, and regain phagocytic capacity, despite the overt absence of plasmalemmal PtdIns(3,4,5)P3 Together, our findings identify phosphoinositide metabolism as a critical upstream target of gliotoxin and also indicate that increased diacylglycerol levels can bypass the requirement for PtdIns(3,4,5)P3signaling during membrane ruffling and phagocytosis.

Importance: Aspergillus fumigatusis the most frequent cause of human infections in theAspergillusgenus. In immunocompromised populations, invasive aspergillosis (IA) is associated with a mortality rate of up to 90%, and current antifungal therapies have failed to prevent or reverse the infection. Therefore, a deeper understanding of the interactions betweenA. fumigatusand its host is required. In healthy humans, alveolar macrophages can ingest and eliminate fungal spores, thus limiting their germination into mycotoxin-producing hyphae. Our studies reveal that gliotoxin-the most abundantAspergillusmycotoxin-undermines the ability of phagocytes to carry out their protective functions. By targeting PtdIns(3,4,5)P3signaling and downregulating phagocytic immune defenses, the toxin could also exacerbate polymicrobial infections. Notably, we were able to reverse gliotoxin toxicity by addition of diacylglycerol analogues, which may provide the basis for therapeutic interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aspergillus fumigatus / metabolism
  • Aspergillus fumigatus / pathogenicity*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Gliotoxin / toxicity*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Immune Evasion
  • Macrophages / cytology
  • Macrophages / drug effects*
  • Macrophages / immunology*
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Microscopy
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects
  • Phosphatidylinositol Phosphates / metabolism*
  • Time-Lapse Imaging


  • Phosphatidylinositol Phosphates
  • phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-triphosphate
  • Gliotoxin