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Open Access Research article

Host stress hormone norepinephrine stimulates pneumococcal growth, biofilm formation and virulence gene expression

Sara Sandrini, Fayez Alghofaili, Primrose Freestone* and Hasan Yesilkaya*

Author Affiliations

Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 9HN, UK

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BMC Microbiology 2014, 14:180  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-14-180

Published: 4 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Host signals are being shown to have a major impact on the bacterial phenotype. One of them is the endogenously produced catecholamine stress hormones, which are also used therapeutically as inotropes. Recent work form our laboratories have found that stress hormones can markedly increase bacterial growth and virulence. This report reveals that Streptococcus pneumoniae, a commensal that can also be a major cause of community acquired and nosocomial pneumonia, is highly inotrope responsive. Therapeutic levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine increased pneumococcal growth via a mechanism involving provision of iron from serum-transferrin and inotrope uptake, as well as enhancing expression of key genes in central metabolism and virulence. Collectively, our data suggests that Streptococcus pneumoniae recognises host stress as an environmental cue to initiate growth and pathogenic processes.

Results

Effects of a clinically attainable concentration of norepinephrine on S. pneumoniae pathogenicity were explored using in vitro growth and virulence assays, and RT-PCR gene expression profiling of genes involved in metabolism and virulence.

We found that norepinephrine was a potent stimulator of growth, via a mechanism involving norepinephrine-delivery of transferrin-iron and internalisation of the inotrope. Stress hormone exposure also markedly increased biofilm formation. Importantly, gene profiling showed that norepinephrine significantly enhanced expression of genes involved in central metabolism and host colonisation. Analysis of the response of the pneumococcal pspA and pspC mutants to the stress hormone showed them to have a central involvement in the catecholamine response mechanism.

Conclusions

Collectively, our evidence suggests that the pneumococcus has mechanisms to recognise and process host stress hormones to augment its virulence properties. The ability to respond to host stress signals may be important for the pneumococcal transition from colonization to invasion mode, which is key to its capacity to cause life-threatening pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis.