Like many intracellular microbes, the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii injects effector proteins into cells it invades. One group of these effector proteins is injected from specialized organelles called the rhoptries, which have previously been described to discharge their contents only during successful invasion of a host cell. In this report, using several reporter systems, we show that in vitro the parasite injects rhoptry proteins into cells it does not productively invade and that the rhoptry effector proteins can manipulate the uninfected cell in a similar manner to infected cells. In addition, as one of the reporter systems uses a rhoptry:Cre recombinase fusion protein, we show that in Cre-reporter mice infected with an encysting Toxoplasma-Cre strain, uninfected-injected cells, which could be derived from aborted invasion or cell-intrinsic killing after invasion, are actually more common than infected-injected cells, especially in the mouse brain, where Toxoplasma encysts and persists. This phenomenon has important implications for how Toxoplasma globally affects its host and opens a new avenue for how other intracellular microbes may similarly manipulate the host environment at large.
Toxoplasma gondii is an obligate, intracellular parasite with a broad host range, including humans and rodents. In both humans and rodents, Toxoplasma establishes a lifelong persistent infection in the brain. While this brain infection is asymptomatic in most immunocompetent people, in the developing fetus or immunocompromised individuals such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) patients, this predilection for and persistence in the brain can lead to devastating neurologic disease. Thus, it is clear that the brain-Toxoplasma interaction is critical to the symptomatic disease produced by Toxoplasma, yet we have little understanding of the cellular or molecular interaction between cells of the central nervous system (CNS) and the parasite. In the mouse model of CNS toxoplasmosis it has been known for over 30 years that neurons are the cells in which the parasite persists, but little information is available about which part of the neuron is generally infected (soma, dendrite, axon) and if this cellular relationship changes between strains. In part, this lack is secondary to the difficulty of imaging and visualizing whole infected neurons from an animal. Such images would typically require serial sectioning and stitching of tissue imaged by electron microscopy or confocal microscopy after immunostaining. By combining several techniques, the method described here enables the use of thick sections (160 µm) to identify and image whole cells that contain cysts, allowing three-dimensional visualization and analysis of individual, chronically infected neurons without the need for immunostaining, electron microscopy, or serial sectioning and stitching. Using this technique, we can begin to understand the cellular relationship between the parasite and the infected neuron.
The balance between controlling infection and limiting inflammation is particularly precarious in the brain because of its unique vulnerability to the toxic effects of inflammation. Astrocytes have been implicated as key regulators of neuroinflammation in CNS infections, including infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that naturally establishes a chronic CNS infection in mice and humans. In CNS toxoplasmosis, astrocytes are critical to controlling parasite growth. They secrete proinflammatory cytokines and physically encircle parasites. However, the molecular mechanisms used by astrocytes to limit neuroinflammation during toxoplasmic encephalitis have not yet been identified. TGF-β signaling in astrocytes is of particular interest because TGF-β is universally upregulated during CNS infection and serves master regulatory and primarily anti-inflammatory functions. We report in this study that TGF-β signaling is activated in astrocytes during toxoplasmic encephalitis and that inhibition of astrocytic TGF-β signaling increases immune cell infiltration, uncouples proinflammatory cytokine and chemokine production from CNS parasite burden, and increases neuronal injury. Remarkably, we show that the effects of inhibiting astrocytic TGF-β signaling are independent of parasite burden and the ability of GFAP(+) astrocytes to physically encircle parasites.