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The non-pathogenic mycobacteria M. smegmatis and M. fortuitum induce rapid host cell apoptosis via a caspase-3 and TNF dependent pathway

Amro Bohsali1, Hana Abdalla1, Kamalakannan Velmurugan13 and Volker Briken12*

  • * Corresponding author: Volker Briken

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, University of Maryland, Campus Drive, College Park, MD, 20742, USA

2 Maryland Pathogen Research Institute, University of Maryland, Campus Drive, College Park, MD, 20742, USA

3 AERAS Global TB Vaccine Foundation, 1405 Research Blvd., Rockville, MD, 20850, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:237  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-237

Published: 10 September 2010



The HIV pandemic raised the potential for facultative-pathogenic mycobacterial species like, Mycobacterium kansasii, to cause disseminating disease in humans with immune deficiencies. In contrast, non-pathogenic mycobacterial species, like M. smegmatis, are not known to cause disseminating disease even in immunocompromised individuals. We hypothesized that this difference in phenotype could be explained by the strong induction of an innate immune response by the non-pathogenic mycobacterial species.


A comparison of two rapid-growing, non-pathogenic species (M. smegmatis and M. fortuitum) with two facultative-pathogenic species (M. kansasii and M. bovis BCG) demonstrated that only the non-pathogenic bacteria induced strong apoptosis in human THP-1 cells and murine bone marrow-derived macrophages (BMDM) and dendritic cells (BMDD). The phospho-myo-inositol modification of lipoarabinomannan (PI-LAM) isolated from non-pathogenic species may be one of the cell wall components responsible for the pro-inflammatory activity of the whole bacteria. Indeed, PI-LAM induces high levels of apoptosis and IL-12 expression compared to the mannosyl modification of LAM isolated from facultative-pathogenic mycobacteria. The apoptosis induced by non-pathogenic M. smegmatis was dependent upon caspase-3 activation and TNF secretion. Consistently, BALB/c BMDM responded by secreting large amounts of TNF upon infection with non-pathogenic but not facultative-pathogenic mycobacteria. Interestingly, C57Bl/6 BMDM do not undergo apoptosis upon infection with non-pathogenic mycobacteria despite the fact that they still induce an increase in TNF secretion. This suggests that the host cell signaling pathways are different between these two mouse genotypes and that TNF is necessary but not sufficient to induce host cell apoptosis.


These results demonstrate a much stronger induction of the innate immune response by non-pathogenic versus facultative-pathogenic mycobacteria as measured by host cell apoptosis, IL-12 and TNF cytokine induction. These observations lend support to the hypothesis that the strong induction of the innate immune response is a major reason for the lack of pathogenicity in fast-growing mycobacteria.