Aggregation of nontuberculous mycobacteria is regulated by carbon-nitrogen balance

William H. Depas (Lead / Corresponding author), Megan Bergkessel, Dianne K. Newman (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
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Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) are emerging opportunistic pathogens that colonize household water systems and cause chronic lung infections in susceptible patients. The ability of NTM to form surface-attached biofilms in the nonhost environment and corded aggregates in vivo is important to their ability to persist in both contexts. Underlying the development of these multicellular structures is the capacity of mycobacterial cells to adhere to one another. Unlike most other bacteria, NTM spontaneously and constitutively aggregate in vitro, hindering our ability to understand the transition between planktonic and aggregated cells. While culturing a model NTM, Mycobacterium smegmatis, in rich medium, we fortuitously discovered that planktonic cells accumulate after _3 days of growth. By providing selective pressure for bacteria that disperse earlier, we isolated a strain with two mutations in the oligopeptide permease operon (opp). A mutant lacking the opp operon (Δopp) disperses earlier than wild type (WT) due to a defect in nutrient uptake. Experiments with WT M. smegmatis revealed that growth as aggregates is favored when carbon is replete, but under conditions of low available carbon relative to available nitrogen, M. smegmatis grows as planktonic cells. By adjusting carbon and nitrogen sources in defined medium, we tuned the cellular C/N ratio such that M. smegmatis grows either as aggregates or as planktonic cells. C/N-mediated aggregation regulation is widespread among NTM with the possible exception of rough-colony Mycobacterium abscessus isolates. Altogether, we show that NTM aggregation is a controlled process that is governed by the relative availability of carbon and nitrogen for metabolism.

Importance: Free-living bacteria can assemble into multicellular structures called biofilms. Biofilms help bacteria tolerate multiple stresses, including antibiotics and the host immune system. Nontuberculous mycobacteria are a group of emerging opportunistic pathogens that utilize biofilms to adhere to household plumbing and showerheads and to avoid phagocytosis by host immune cells. Typically, bacteria regulate biofilm formation by controlling expression of adhesive structures to attach to surfaces and other bacterial cells. Mycobacteria harbor a unique cell wall built chiefly of long-chain mycolic acids that confers hydrophobicity and has been thought to cause constitutive aggregation in liquid media. Here we show that aggregation is instead a regulated process dictated by the balance of available carbon and nitrogen. Understanding that mycobacteria utilize metabolic cues to regulate the transition between planktonic and aggregated cells reveals an inroad to controlling biofilm formation through targeted therapeutics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01715-19
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
Issue number4
Early online date13 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019


  • Biofilms
  • Carbon metabolism
  • Mycobacterium
  • Nitrogen metabolism
  • Physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


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