How Ballistic Organelles Drive Host Cell Invation
Microsporidia are tiny, single-celled parasites similar to fungi that infect a wide range of animal species. In humans, microsporidia infections can be life-threatening in immunocompromised individuals. Due to the diverse animals they can infect, microsporidia have also been implicated in honeybee colony collapse, decreased yield in the aqua cultural production of shrimp, and have negative impacts on many other agriculturally important animals.
Consequently, understanding how microsporidia infect their hosts will have broad applications, both for the treatment of disease as well as the agricultural and biotechnology industries. With the support of the Searle Scholars program, my lab will be investigating one of the earliest steps in the infection process. In order to infect a cell, the parasite must gain entry into that cell. To do this, microsporidia employ a tantalizing, unique and very intricate harpoon-like machine to pierce the target cell and to translocate their DNA and other cellular contents inside the host. The firing of this &$34;harpoon", called the polar tube, is violent and occurs incredibly rapidy, within roughly one second. We are using advanced imaging techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy to understand how this incredible biological machine works, how it is built, and how it helps the parasite to gain entry into host cells. By unraveling how this cellular machine works, we hope to lay the foundation for developing drugs that target the polar tube "harpoon" and can block it from firing, thereby preventing infection in the first place. Such drugs may serve as the basis for new treatments for human diseases, as well as avenues to help control microporidial infestations that decimate the agricultural industry. By getting a glimpse into how this parasite infects cells, we also hope to shed new light on other parasites that may deploy similar mechanisms of invading host cells and causing diverse kinds of infections.