L-glutamine Induces Expression of Listeria monocytogenes Virulence Genes

PLoS Pathog. 2017 Jan 23;13(1):e1006161. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1006161. eCollection 2017 Jan.


The high environmental adaptability of bacteria is contingent upon their ability to sense changes in their surroundings. Bacterial pathogen entry into host poses an abrupt and dramatic environmental change, during which successful pathogens gauge multiple parameters that signal host localization. The facultative human pathogen Listeria monocytogenes flourishes in soil, water and food, and in ~50 different animals, and serves as a model for intracellular infection. L. monocytogenes identifies host entry by sensing both physical (e.g., temperature) and chemical (e.g., metabolite concentrations) factors. We report here that L-glutamine, an abundant nitrogen source in host serum and cells, serves as an environmental indicator and inducer of virulence gene expression. In contrast, ammonia, which is the most abundant nitrogen source in soil and water, fully supports growth, but fails to activate virulence gene transcription. We demonstrate that induction of virulence genes only occurs when the Listerial intracellular concentration of L-glutamine crosses a certain threshold, acting as an on/off switch: off when L-glutamine concentrations are below the threshold, and fully on when the threshold is crossed. To turn on the switch, L-glutamine must be present, and the L-glutamine high affinity ABC transporter, GlnPQ, must be active. Inactivation of GlnPQ led to complete arrest of L-glutamine uptake, reduced type I interferon response in infected macrophages, dramatic reduction in expression of virulence genes, and attenuated virulence in a mouse infection model. These results may explain observations made with other pathogens correlating nitrogen metabolism and virulence, and suggest that gauging of L-glutamine as a means of ascertaining host localization may be a general mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blotting, Western
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / physiology*
  • Glutamine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Listeria monocytogenes / pathogenicity*
  • Listeriosis / microbiology*
  • Macrophages / microbiology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Virulence / physiology*


  • Glutamine