Zinc limitation triggers anticipatory adaptations in Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
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Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) has complex and dynamic interactions with the human host, and subpopulations of Mtb that emerge during infection can influence disease outcomes. This study implicates zinc ion (Zn2+) availability as a likely driver of bacterial phenotypic heterogeneity in vivo. Zn2+ sequestration is part of "nutritional immunity", where the immune system limits micronutrients to control pathogen growth, but this defense mechanism seems to be ineffective in controlling Mtb infection. Nonetheless, Zn2+-limitation is an environmental cue sensed by Mtb, as calprotectin triggers the zinc uptake regulator (Zur) regulon response in vitro and co-localizes with Zn2+-limited Mtb in vivo. Prolonged Zn2+ limitation leads to numerous physiological changes in vitro, including differential expression of certain antigens, alterations in lipid metabolism and distinct cell surface morphology. Furthermore, Mtb enduring limited Zn2+ employ defensive measures to fight oxidative stress, by increasing expression of proteins involved in DNA repair and antioxidant activity, including well described virulence factors KatG and AhpC, along with altered utilization of redox cofactors. Here, we propose a model in which prolonged Zn2+ limitation defines a population of Mtb with anticipatory adaptations against impending immune attack, based on the evidence that Zn2+-limited Mtb are more resistant to oxidative stress and exhibit increased survival and induce more severe pulmonary granulomas in mice. Considering that extracellular Mtb may transit through the Zn2+-limited caseum before infecting nave immune cells or upon host-to-host transmission, the resulting phenotypic heterogeneity driven by varied Zn2+ availability likely plays a key role during early interactions with host cells.