Calcineurin orchestrates dimorphic transitions, antifungal drug responses and host-pathogen interactions of the pathogenic mucoralean fungus Mucor circinelloides

Soo Chan Lee, Alicia Li, Silvia Calo, Makoto Inoue, Nam K. Tonthat, Judith M. Bain, Johanna Louw, Mari L. Shinohara, Lars P. Erwig, Maria A. Schumacher, Dennis C. Ko, Joseph Heitman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Summary: Calcineurin plays essential roles in virulence and growth of pathogenic fungi and is a target of the natural products FK506 and Cyclosporine A. In the pathogenic mucoralean fungus Mucor circinelloides, calcineurin mutation or inhibition confers a yeast-locked phenotype indicating that calcineurin governs the dimorphic transition. Genetic analysis in this study reveals that two calcineurin A catalytic subunits (out of three) are functionally diverged. Homology modeling illustrates modes of resistance resulting from amino substitutions in the interface between each calcineurin subunit and the inhibitory drugs. In addition, we show how the dimorphic transition orchestrated by calcineurin programs different outcomes during host-pathogen interactions. For example, when macrophages phagocytose Mucor yeast, subsequent phagosomal maturation occurs, indicating host cells respond appropriately to control the pathogen. On the other hand, upon phagocytosis of spores, macrophages fail to form mature phagosomes. Cytokine production from immune cells differs following exposure to yeast versus spores (which germinate into hyphae). Thus, the morphogenic transition can be targeted as an efficient treatment option against Mucor infection. In addition, genetic analysis (including gene disruption and mutational studies) further strengthens the understanding of calcineurin and provides a foundation to develop antifungal agents targeting calcineurin to deploy against Mucor and other pathogenic fungi. Following phagocytosis by host macrophages Mucor spores escape host immunity by arresting phagosome maturation. Other host responses include production of a proangiogenic growth factor and proinflammatory cytokines from immune cells. In contrast, the yeast form of this fungus fails to induce these host responses. Calcineurin orchestrates the dimorphic transition and the yeast-locked calcineurin regulatory B subunit mutant is less virulent compared to wild-type, suggesting calcineurin as a target for antifungal drug development for this fungus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)844-865
Number of pages22
JournalMolecular Microbiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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