The Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor Governs Epithelial Cell Invasion during Oropharyngeal Candidiasis

mBio. 2017 Mar 21;8(2):e00025-17. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00025-17.


Oropharyngeal candidiasis (OPC), caused predominantly by Candida albicans, is a prevalent infection in patients with advanced AIDS, defects in Th17 immunity, and head and neck cancer. A characteristic feature of OPC is fungal invasion of the oral epithelial cells. One mechanism by which C. albicans hyphae can invade oral epithelial cells is by expressing the Als3 and Ssa1 invasins that interact with the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) on epithelial cells and stimulate endocytosis of the organism. However, the signaling pathways that function downstream of EGFR and mediate C. albicans endocytosis are poorly defined. Here, we report that C. albicans infection activates the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), leading to activation of Src family kinases (SFKs), which in turn phosphorylate EGFR and induce endocytosis of the fungus. Furthermore, treatment of oral epithelial cells with interferon gamma inhibits fungal endocytosis by inducing the synthesis of kynurenines, which cause prolonged activation of AhR and SFKs, thereby interfering with C. albicans-induced EGFR signaling. Treatment of both immunosuppressed and immunocompetent mice with an AhR inhibitor decreases phosphorylation of SFKs and EGFR in the oral mucosa, reduces fungal invasion, and lessens the severity of OPC. Thus, our data indicate that AhR plays a central role in governing the pathogenic interactions of C. albicans with oral epithelial cells during OPC and suggest that this receptor is a potential therapeutic target.IMPORTANCE OPC is caused predominantly by the fungus C. albicans, which can invade the oral epithelium by several mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is induced endocytosis, which is stimulated when fungal invasins bind to epithelial cell receptors such as EGFR. Receptor binding causes rearrangement of epithelial cell microfilaments, leading to the formation of pseudopods that engulf the fungus and pull it into the epithelial cell. We discovered AhR acts via SFKs to phosphorylate EGFR and induce the endocytosis of C. albicans Our finding that a small molecule inhibitor of AhR ameliorates OPC in mice suggests that a strategy of targeting host cell signaling pathways that govern epithelial cell endocytosis of C. albicans holds promise as a new approach to preventing or treating OPC.

Keywords: Candida albicans; aryl hydrocarbon receptor; epithelial cells; host cell invasion; interferon-gamma.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Candidiasis, Oral / microbiology*
  • Candidiasis, Oral / pathology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endocytosis*
  • Epithelial Cells / microbiology*
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology*
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • src-Family Kinases / metabolism


  • Ahr protein, mouse
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • EGFR protein, mouse
  • ErbB Receptors
  • src-Family Kinases