Airway Mucus Restricts Neisseria meningitidis Away from Nasopharyngeal Epithelial Cells and Protects the Mucosa from Inflammation

mSphere. 2019 Dec 4;4(6):e00494-19. doi: 10.1128/mSphere.00494-19.


Neisseria meningitidis is an inhabitant of the nasopharynx, from which it is transmitted from person to person or disseminates in blood and becomes a harmful pathogen. In this work, we addressed colonization of the nasopharyngeal niche by focusing on the interplay between meningococci and the airway mucus that lines the mucosa of the host. Using Calu-3 cells grown in air interface culture (cells grown with the apical domain facing air), we studied meningococcal colonization of the mucus and the host response. Our results suggested that N. meningitidis behaved like commensal bacteria in mucus, without interacting with human cells or actively transmigrating through the cell layer. As a result, type IV pili do not play a role in this model, and meningococci did not trigger a strong innate immune response from the Calu-3 cells. Finally, we have shown that this model is suitable for studying interaction of N. meningitidis with other bacteria living in the nasopharynx and that Streptococcus mitis, but not Moraxella catarrhalis, can promote meningococcal growth in this model.IMPORTANCEN. meningitidis is transmitted from person to person by aerosol droplets produced by breathing, talking, or coughing or by direct contact with a contaminated fluid. The natural reservoir of N. meningitidis is the human nasopharynx mucosa, located at the back of the nose and above the oropharynx. The means by which meningococci cross the nasopharyngeal wall is still under debate, due to the lack of a convenient and relevant model mimicking the nasopharyngeal niche. Here, we took advantage of Calu-3 cells grown in air interface culture to study how meningococci colonize the nasopharyngeal niche. We report that the airway mucus is both a niche for meningococcal growth and a protective barrier against N. meningitidis infection. As such, N. meningitidis behaves like commensal bacteria and is unlikely to induce infection without an external trigger.

Keywords: Neisseria meningitidis; airway mucus; host-pathogen interaction; meningitis; nasopharynx.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line
  • Epithelial Cells / immunology*
  • Epithelial Cells / microbiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Factors / metabolism*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Mucositis / immunology
  • Mucositis / microbiology
  • Mucus / metabolism*
  • Nasopharynx / immunology*
  • Nasopharynx / microbiology*
  • Neisseria meningitidis / immunology*


  • Immunologic Factors