Environmental pathogens move from ecological niches to mammalian hosts, requiring adaptation to dramatically different environments. Microbes that disseminate farther, including the fungal meningitis pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans, require additional adaptation to diverse tissues. We demonstrate that the formation of a small C. neoformans morphotype-called "seed" cells due to their colonizing ability-is critical for extrapulmonary organ entry. Seed cells exhibit changes in fungal cell size and surface expression that result in an enhanced macrophage update. Seed cell formation is triggered by environmental factors, including C. neoformans' environmental niche, and pigeon guano with phosphate plays a central role. Seed cells show the enhanced expression of phosphate acquisition genes, and mutants unable to acquire phosphate fail to adopt the seed cell morphotype. Additionally, phosphate can be released by tissue damage, potentially establishing a feed-forward loop of seed cell formation and dissemination. Thus, C. neoformans' size variation represent inducible morphotypes that change host interactions to facilitate microbe spread.
Keywords: Cryptococcus; environmental reservoir; fungal dissemination; fungal pathogenesis; morphological switch; morphology; mycology; phosphate.
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