Imaging tuberculosis with endogenous beta-lactamase reporter enzyme fluorescence in live mice.
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The slow growth rate and genetic intractability of tubercle bacilli has hindered progress toward understanding tuberculosis, one of the most frequent causes of death worldwide. We overcame this roadblock through development of near-infrared (NIR) fluorogenic substrates for beta-lactamase, an enzyme expressed by tubercle bacilli, but not by their eukaryotic hosts, to allow real-time imaging of pulmonary infections and rapid quantification of bacteria in living animals by a strategy called reporter enzyme fluorescence (REF). This strategy has a detection limit of 6 +/- 2 x 10(2) colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria with the NIR substrate CNIR5 in only 24 h of incubation in vitro, and as few as 10(4) CFU in the lungs of live mice. REF can also be used to differentiate infected from uninfected macrophages by using confocal microscopy and fluorescence activated cell sorting. Mycobacterium tuberculosis and the bacillus Calmette-Gurin can be tracked directly in the lungs of living mice without sacrificing the animals. Therapeutic efficacy can also be evaluated through loss of REF signal within 24 h posttreatment by using in vitro whole-bacteria assays directly in living mice. We expect that rapid quantification of bacteria within tissues of a living host and in the laboratory is potentially transformative for tuberculosis virulence studies, evaluation of therapeutics, and efficacy of vaccine candidates. This is a unique use of an endogenous bacterial enzyme probe to detect and image tubercle bacilli that demonstrates REF is likely to be useful for the study of many bacterial infections.