Chronic respiratory infections by Burkholderia cenocepacia in cystic fibrosis patients are associated with increased morbidity and mortality, but virulence factors determining the persistence of the infection in the airways are not well characterized. Using a chronic pulmonary infection model, we previously identified an attenuated mutant with an insertion in a gene encoding an RpoN activator protein, suggesting that RpoN and/or components of the RpoN regulon play a role in B. cenocepacia virulence. In this study, we demonstrate that a functional rpoN gene is required for bacterial motility and biofilm formation in B. cenocepacia K56-2. Unlike other bacteria, RpoN does not control flagellar biosynthesis, as evidenced by the presence of flagella in the rpoN mutant. We also demonstrate that, in macrophages, the rpoN mutant is rapidly trafficked to lysosomes while intracellular wild-type B. cenocepacia localizes in bacterium-containing vacuoles that exhibit a pronounced delay in phagolysosomal fusion. Rapid trafficking to the lysosomes is also associated with the release of red fluorescent protein into the vacuolar lumen, indicating loss of bacterial cell envelope integrity. Although a role for RpoN in motility and biofilm formation has been previously established, this study is the first demonstration that the RpoN regulon in B. cenocepacia is involved in delaying phagolysosomal fusion, thereby prolonging bacterial intracellular survival within macrophages.
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