A genome-scale census of virulence factors in the major mould pathogen of human lungs

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: School of Biological Sciences


Infectious diseases caused by fungi are a worldwide problem causing at least as many deaths as malaria and tuberculosis. For infections caused by spore-forming moulds there is only one available class of oral drug, the azoles. Azole resistance amongst clinical mould isolates is increasing and one possible cause of this problem is the widespread use of azoles in the environment as agricultural fungicides. There is therefore a desperate need to develop new antifungal treatments.

Fungal particles (or spores), which are continually present in the air that we breathe, are able to survive in the human lung. Usually, this occurs when the immune system of the infected individual is not functioning optimally. Always, it involves the germination of the fungal spore (rather like a plant seed) and growth of long fungal cells called hyphae. Hyphae penetrate and dissolve lung tissues by secreting enzymes. The major fungal pathogen in the air we breathe is called Aspergillus fumigatus and people affected by cancer, or requiring organ transplants, are particularly at risk of fatal infections caused by it. Unfortunately our lack of understanding of A. fumigatus, and the technical difficulties encountered when working with it, has limited progress in this field. We do not fully understand why Aspergillus is able to survive inside the lung environment. We urgently need more basic information about this pathogen so we can begin to design future therapies.

When scientists try to figure out how cellular processes work, a first port of call is often transcription factors. Transcription factors control the activity of many genes simultaneously so they command great power over cellular processes. If a transcription factor is important for a particular process, one will then look at which genes it regulates and this will give clues to the biology underlying that process. If a transcription factor is not involved then it, and all of the genes it regulates, can be eliminated from the investigation. By asking which transcription factors control the ability of A. fumigatus to cause disease, we can achieve a global view of the regulatory network which drives infection. We intend to couple this approach to a state of the art DNA sequencing technology to gain maximal insight on A. fumigatus pathogenicity, with minimal usage of mice.

We have searched the A. fumigatus genome for transcription factor genes and created a collection of 401 A. fumigatus mutants, each one lacking a transcription factor. To ask which of the transcription factors is important for mammalian lung infection we will infect mice with the collection of mutants and see which are unable to survive inside the lung. We have devised a method which will allow us to test many mutants at the same time. This involves infecting all of the mutants into a single mouse, and after sacrifice, sequencing the DNA extracted from the lung to tell us which mutants have managed to survive. We will use this method to reveal all of the transcription factors driving pathogenicity (P-TFs) in A. fumigatus. Thus the lowest possible number of animals will be utilised. When we have identified all of the P-TFs we will then work to identify the genes which are regulated by each P-TF. In order to do this we will use two approaches. First we will chemically fix the transcription factor to A. fumigatus DNA to identify the binding sites of each transcription factor. Second we will look at gene expression in mutants lacking P-TFs and work out which genes become deregulated. The success of this investigation will 1) Redress the meagre progress made in recent decades in defining the molecular basis of pathogenicity of Aspergillus fumigatus 2) Lead us directly to the fungal processes we need to target with new drugs 3) Hugely reduce the number of animal infection studies performed by other scientists on A. fumigatus 4) Help us to optimise high throughput manipulation of A. fumigatus for future drug screens.

Technical Summary

Spores of the common Aspergillus moulds are agents of widespread, often fatal, human and avian diseases, however, amongst a repertoire of more than 400 predicted transcription factors, fewer than ten have been characterised for their role in disease.

We have developed a 'first-in-field' collection of 401 transcription factor knock out (TFKO) mutants for Aspergillus fumigatus, the major mould pathogen of humans, and now propose to identify those which govern pathogenicity. We have also developed and optimised a high throughput parallel fitness screen with which to functionally annotate transcription factor activities. We will use this method to assess the fitness of each mutant under infection-relevant laboratory-imposed stress, and in two murine models of aspergillosis. This will enable the functional annotation of the entire genomic cohort of transcription factors and identification of those which support pathogenicity (P-TFs). We will construct isolates expressing epitope-tagged P-TFs to identify the regulatory network of gene products they govern. We will use chromatin immunoprecipitation to capture DNA bound by P-TFs and massively parallel DNA sequencing to identify them. We will then use RNA-Seq to verify the functional significance of promoter binding by P-TFs. This work will allow us to construct a map of the functional regulatory network which governs pathogenicity and elevate our understanding of this important pathogen.

Planned Impact

1. Individuals suffering, or at risk from, Aspergillus-related disease: The health burden of diseases caused by fungi is considerable. Where severe invasive infections are concerned, deep-organ infection occurs as a negative corollary to otherwise successful, but nonetheless expensive, treatments for serious illness. In 2002 almost 10,000 patients in England were estimated to have suffered a deep-organ fungal infection. Almost half of them died from their fungal disease (HPA). The pipeline for new antifungal compounds is sparse and antifungal resistance is advancing. The use of agricultural azoles is prompting emergence of clinically significant resistant isolates. Three new triazoles (albaconazole, isavuconazole and ravuconazole) are in clinical trials however, as with extant triazoles, they target lanosterol 14-demethylase and are likely to be dogged by similar resistance issues. The glucan synthase inhibitor in development by Merck has been stalled in Phase I since 2009, as have the novel compounds corifungin (Acea biotech), T-2307 (Toyama) and the HDAc inhibitor of Methylgene. All of this indicates potential problems in development.

2. Healthcare Service Providers: The cost of invasive infections caused by Aspergillus sp. in the US alone was estimated at $633 million in 1996. This cost included the expense of failed chemotherapy, or bone marrow or organ transplantation [Dasbach EJ, Davies GM, Teutsch SM (2000) Burden of aspergillosis-related hospitalizations in the United States. Clin Infect Dis 31:1524-8].

3. Pharmaceutical companies seeking novel antifungal agents: The global market for clinical antifungals was estimated to be $9.4 billion US in 2010 (GBI research) and is anticipated to exceed $12 billion by 2016. The advancement of novel target-based strategies currently falls outside the remit of many large drug discovery companies and it will therefore fall to academic partners to progress research in this area. This deficiency will require pharmaceutical companies to interact with academics that have expertise in drug design and toxicology. The tools we will develop will have direct applicability to these efforts, and their availability will help to forge links that will provide tangible and valuable outputs far beyond the scope of this project.

4. Scientists and industries pursuing the advancement of systems biology in Aspergilli: Our study will lead to whole genome systems approaches in Aspergilli, which are a hugely significant fungal genus to man, not least to the human economy. Aspergilli are used in production of acidification agents (citric acid), hydrolytic enzymes (such as amylase used for hydrolysis of starch in bread and beer), invertase (confectionary), and pectinases (fruit juice and wine production). Aspergillus oryzae is widely used for the production of fermented foods and beverages in Japan. Over half all bread production in the USA utilises A. oryzae proteases to liberate amino acids required for yeast growth and respiration. A. niger is used as a producer of polysaccharide-degrading enzymes (amylases, pectinases, xylanases) and organic acids. The world market for such enzymes has an estimated worth of US$ 5 billion. High yield production strains of Trichoderma reesei and Aspergillus niger are used for the manufacture of enzymes worth in the region of $1 billion per annum. Aspergilli are important sources of natural products. Statins, whose use has had a dramatic impact upon incidence of coronary artery diseases, and prevention of stroke and peripheral vascular disease, were first derived as lovastatin from Aspergillus terreus. It is widely recognised that enzyme cost is the single biggest economic barrier to the mass conversion of lignocellose waste for bioethanol production. Our parallel fitness model could be employed in academic laboratories to assess in a high throughput manner, the fitness of multiple genetic variants in industrially relevant contexts.


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Bertuzzi M (2018) Anti-Aspergillus Activities of the Respiratory Epithelium in Health and Disease. in Journal of fungi (Basel, Switzerland)

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Bignell E (2016) Secondary metabolite arsenal of an opportunistic pathogenic fungus. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

Description Filmed and narrated video content for GILEAD publicity campaign on antifungal mode of action studies
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Insights into timescales and potency of antifungal therapies will help to educate healthcare practitioners on modes of action and relative in vitro efficacies of different antifungal interventions and advances knowledge in the field of antifungal modes of action.
Description BBSRC DTG University of Manchester
Amount £120,000 (GBP)
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2015 
End 09/2019
Description Epithelial cytotoxins research grant
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Organisation Chelsea and Westminster Hospital 
Sector Hospitals
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2017 
End 12/2018
Description Understanding and mitigating the impact of emerging antifungal resistance
Amount £2,200,879 (GBP)
Funding ID 219551/Z/19/Z 
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2020 
End 06/2024
Description Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award
Amount £2,145,376 (GBP)
Funding ID Z19551/Z/19/Z 
Organisation Imperial College London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2021 
End 06/2025
Title The Aspergillus fumigatus Gene and Non-Coding RNA Knockout Library 
Description A collection of null mutants for every gene of the Aspergillus fumigatus genome is under construction and beginning its distribution to the research community. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The availability of the mutant collection will make a transformative shift in the scale of research into Aspergillus-related disease and provide a fast-track route to novel drug targets. 
Description Chair of Fungal Biology Research Committee of the British Mycological Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Fungal Biology Research Committee Mission Statement
Raise the profile of Fungal Biology Research in the UK and Internationally.
Promote networking across the fungal biology community.
Maintain strong links and communications with other mycological Societies and the International Mycological Association (IMA)
Strengthen links with UK and international funding bodies to ensure fungal research has a voice where funding and strategy decisions are being made.
Organise and support conferences, meetings and workshops for the international mycological community.
Engage and inspire future generations of fungal biologists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018
URL https://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/science/
Description GILEAD Educational Updates 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact On behalf of GILEAD I have spoken to several special interest groups including via a webinar for Medical Microbiologists (2021), Intensive Care Practitioners (Birmingham 2020), nurses and consultant haematologists at the Manchester Royal Infirmary (2021) and Medical Microbiologists at a specialist symposium held by GILEAD at the University of Manchester (2020).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
Description January 2022 MRC Seminar Series: Tackling fungi that cause human lung disease (Elaine Bignell) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Tackling fungi that cause human lung disease - A talk delivered to the Directorate, Board & Programme Managers and Institute staff of the Medical Research Council
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WKtneF1wrk&list=PLSus4fp7v7sQuXdUwREyHbUMR8cqNZKYj&index=15
Description Killer Fungus Event at Manchester Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A 40-strong team of clinicians and scientists from the Universities of Aberdeen and Manchester, University Hospital South Manchester, National Aspergillosis Centre and Mycology Reference Laboratory Manchester, delivered the 'Killer Fungus' event at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in October. Visited by more than 1300 members of the public in a single day, the exhibit utilised the entirety of the enormous MOSI Power Hall to deliver two parallel events depicting the breadth, wonder and deadly nature of fungal contributions to life, and death, on Earth. New to the Killer Fungus exhibit for 2018, an app-based role playing game 'Outbreak' pitched 38 teams of impromptu scientists against a deadly killer fungus to resolve a mystery illness sweeping Manchester.
Arriving to breaking news from the BBC of a mystery illness causing fatal meningitis amongst the Greater Manchester population, teams were immersed into a battle, alongside real-life clinicians and scientists, to collect field samples, witness the effects of the disease on human patients, and examine clinical data and pathogen genetic code and to work against the clock to crack the source of the Outbreak.
At a complementary Platform for Investigation exhibit, visitors learned about fungi and the diseases they cause by playing computer games, viewed microscopic examples of fungal pathogens colonising agar plates and lung tissue, and made Play Dough models of innate immune cells attacking fungi.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.killerfungus.org/
Description Mycotalks: S1 E12 Antivirulence strategies for tackling Aspergilloses 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A talk delivered to Medical Mycologists of all career stages that describes molecular genetic approaches to novel antifungal drug discovery
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGB64q16cgc
Description Studies of Aspergillosis at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology: World Aspergillosis Day 2022 (Elaine Bignell) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact An overview (for patients suffering from Aspergilloses) of ongoing research aimed at tackling the problem
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.aspergillosisday.org/WAD2022/national-aspergillosis-centre-seminar-series/