ABSTRACT

Staphylococcus aureus is an important pathogen responsible for nosocomial and community-acquired infections in humans, and methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) infections have continued to increase despite widespread preventative measures. S. aureus can colonize the female vaginal tract, and reports have suggested an increase in MRSA infections in pregnant and postpartum women as well as outbreaks in newborn nurseries. Currently, little is known about specific factors that promote MRSA vaginal colonization and subsequent infection. To study S. aureus colonization of the female reproductive tract in a mammalian system, we developed a mouse model of S. aureus vaginal carriage and demonstrated that both hospital-associated and community-associated MRSA isolates can colonize the murine vaginal tract. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed an increase in neutrophils in the vaginal lumen during MRSA colonization. Additionally, we observed that a mutant lacking fibrinogen binding adhesins exhibited decreased persistence within the mouse vagina. To further identify novel factors that promote vaginal colonization, we performed RNA sequencing to determine the transcriptome of MRSA growing in vivo during vaginal carriage at 5 h, 1 day, and 3 days postinoculation. Over 25% of the bacterial genes were differentially regulated at all time points during colonization compared to laboratory cultures. The most highly induced genes were those involved in iron acquisition, including the Isd system and siderophore transport systems. Mutants deficient in these pathways did not persist as well during in vivo colonization. These results reveal that fibrinogen binding and the capacity to overcome host nutritional limitation are important determinants of MRSA vaginal colonization.

IMPORTANCE Staphylococcus aureus is an opportunistic pathogen able to cause a wide variety of infections in humans. Recent reports have suggested an increasing prevalence of MRSA in pregnant and postpartum women, coinciding with the increased incidence of MRSA infections in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and newborn nurseries. Vertical transmission from mothers to infants at delivery is a likely route of MRSA acquisition by the newborn; however, essentially nothing is known about host and bacterial factors that influence MRSA carriage in the vagina. Here, we established a mouse model of vaginal colonization and observed that multiple MRSA strains can persist in the vaginal tract. Additionally, we determined that MRSA interactions with fibrinogen and iron uptake can promote vaginal persistence. This study is the first to identify molecular mechanisms which govern vaginal colonization by MRSA, the critical initial step preceding infection and neonatal transmission.

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Citation:  Deng L, Schilcher K, Burcham LR, Kwiecinski JM, Johnson PM, Head SR, Heinrichs DE, Horswill AR, Doran KS. 2019. Identification of key determinants of Staphylococcus aureus vaginal colonization. mBio 10:e02321-19.   https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.02321-19

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