PE_PGRSs of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) represent a family of complex and peculiar proteins whose role and function remain elusive. In this study, we investigated PE_PGRS3 and PE_PGRS4, two highly homologous PE_PGRSs encoded by two contiguous genes in the Mtb genome. Using a gene-reporter system in Mycobacterium smegmatis (Ms) and transcriptional analysis in Mtb, we show that PE_PGRS3, but not PE_PGRS4, is specifically expressed under low phosphate concentrations. Interestingly, PE_PGRS3, but not PE_PGRS4, has a unique, arginine-rich C-terminal domain of unknown function. Heterologous expression of PE_PGRS3 in Ms was used to demonstrate cellular localisation of the protein on the mycobacterial surface, where it significantly affects net surface charge. Moreover, expression of full-length PE_PGRS3 enhanced adhesion of Ms to murine macrophages and human epithelial cells and improved bacterial persistence in spleen tissue following infection in mice. Expression of the PE_PGRS3 functional deletion mutant lacking the C-terminal domain in Ms did not enhance adhesion to host cells, showing a phenotype similar to the Ms parental strain. Interestingly, enhanced persistence of Ms expressing PE_PGRS3 did not correlate with increased concentrations of inflammatory cytokines. These results point to a critical role for the ≈ 80 amino acids long, arginine-rich C-terminal domain of PE_PGRS3 in tuberculosis pathogenesis.
- Mycobacterium tuberculosis