Phase variation in Francisella tularensis affecting intracellular growth, lipopolysaccharide antigenicity and nitric oxide production

Mol Microbiol. 1996 May;20(4):867-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.1996.tb02524.x.


Many microbial pathogens, such as Mycobacterium spp. and Salmonella spp., use macrophage intracellular growth or antigenic variation as mechanisms for avoiding the host immune system. In this work we present evidence to show that the intracellular pathogen Francisella tularensis uses phase variation to alter antigenicity and the host macrophage nitric oxide response simultaneously, thereby modulating its intracellular growth. The lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and lipid A of F. tularensis fails to stimulate production of significant levels of nitric oxide (NO) by rat macrophages. However, spontaneous variants of F. tularensis expressing an antigenically distinct LPS induce rat macrophages to produce increased levels of NO, thereby suppressing microbial intramacrophage growth. Similarly, lipid A isolated from these variants stimulates increased levels of NO production. A reverse phase shift can occur, which returns the LPS to the original antigenic form, reduces NO production, and restores intramacrophage growth. These findings represent the first demonstration of a phase-variation phenomenon which modulates intracellular growth and an innate immune response. Furthermore, these results suggest that a microbial pathogen can exploit macrophage NO production for its own benefit, perhaps by prolonging the host-pathogen association during the acute phase of disease or during the process of establishing a carrier state.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Blotting, Western
  • Electrophoresis, Polyacrylamide Gel
  • Female
  • Francisella tularensis / growth & development*
  • Lipopolysaccharides / immunology*
  • Macrophages / microbiology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Nitric Oxide / biosynthesis*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Nitric Oxide