Re-engineering of fungal sulphur metabolism to limit mould viability and virulence.

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


On a world-wide basis, A. fumigatus is the most prominent fungal pathogen of the human lung. In Europe, the all-cause burden of Aspergillus-related lung disease exceeds 2 million cases per annum, including up to 50,000 potentially fatal cases of invasive aspergillosis. The mortality rate associated with this disease is very high, and antifungal drugs currently in use have suboptimal efficacy and result in antifungal resistance. In order to develop more successful therapies, it is necessary to better understand why A. fumigatus is able to grow in mammalian tissues. Critical to this process is metabolic versatility and the capacity to obtain nutrients from the host.

I have previously shown that regulation of sulphur (S) assimilation is essential for virulence, however the exact S-source exploited in lung tissue and the in vivo fungal sulphur-related metabolic status remain unknown. Therefore, in this project I aim to clarify these two important issues, which may derive in the identification of suitable targets for the development of novel antifungal therapy.

First, I will utilize state-of-the-art gene expression analysis technology to investigate the sulphur-related metabolic status during infection. This approach has the potential to identify novel pathogenic processes which will aid the development of novel antifungal strategy. Based on my preliminary data, I will concentrate on two specific S-containing molecules which are strongly suggested to be relevant for virulence: methionine and sulphide (H2S).

Methionine is an amino acid whose biosynthesis appears to be essential for A. fumigatus, in contrast to closely related fungal species but in line with other pathogenic fungal species. I will determine what aspect of the biosynthetic pathway is essential, as well as the functional relevance of this activity for fungal survival.

In addition, I will look for compounds that specifically inhibit the activity of the fungal cobalamin-independent methionine synthase in vitro, and test their suitability as anti-aspergillosis drugs in animal models of disease. I will also ask whether A. fumigatus exploits H2S as sulphur source during infection. Sulphide is a gas produced in the human tissues, including the lungs, as signalling molecule. It has been described that H2S modifies proteins inside the cells, to regulate their activity. This protein alteration, termed sulfhydration, has been observed in bacteria and mammalian cells, demonstrating its conservation throughout evolution, and therefore, highlighting its importance. Nothing is known about sulfhydration in fungal species, I will therefore investigate whether this protein alteration occurs in A. fumigatus and whether it is important for the fungus to grow within the lungs.

I will use the gathered results to look for correlates between fungal and/or mammalian sulphur metabolism, and risk for aspergillosis. This will be achieved by interrogation of the human and fungal genome data curated by the University of Manchester. Importantly, these analyses may underscore relevant epidemiologic information which may aid patient management.

Technical Summary

I will seek a mechanistic understanding of A. fumigatus in vivo S-requirements using state-of-the-art NanoString gene expression technology of fungal RNA isolated from infected mice. I have demonstrated that methionine (met) synthase is essential in A. fumigatus. I will next attempt to construct a met auxotroph in which met synthase activity is maintained (metG cysD double mutant), to ascertain whether met is a vital in vivo S-source and met biosynthesis per se is essential for A. fumigatus.
I will seek specific inhibitors of fungal cobalamin-independent met synthases, and assess their relevance as antifungal therapeutics. I will test polyglutamated folate analogues and I will also screen a MRCT library of 9000 compounds held at the Manchester Fungal Infection Group (MFIG), using an in vitro, spectrophotometric method. Drug candidates will then be tested to confirm their impact upon fungal growth using a luciferase expressing A. fumigatus strain. Drugs having an inhibitory effect will be further tested in animals to evaluate their suitability for treatment.
I will investigate the relevance of H2S, a gas produced in mammalian tissues, for A. fumigatus growth and virulence. I will test virulence of a cysD cysB double mutant, which should not incorporate H2S, to determine if H2S is exploited as S-source. Since H2S has been described to target cysteines, a protein modification termed sulfhydration, I will also ascertain whether this occurs in A. fumigatus. I will adapt two previously described methods to compare protein extracts from wt and a mecA mecB double mutant (which I hypothesise would be a sulfhydration-defective strain). Furthermore, I will utilize a mouse CSE-/- line, defective in H2S production in peripheral tissues, to confirm the relevance of this gas in vivo. Finally, I will seek correlations between fungal S- assimilation and/or human S-status, and the occurrence of disease using the database of genome sequences for aspergilloses curated at the MFIG.

Planned Impact

1. Individuals suffering, or at risk from, Aspergillus-related disease: On a world-wide basis, A. fumigatus is the most prominent fungal pathogen of the human lung, and persistence in human airways of inhaled A. fumigatus spores is a major cause of acute and chronic lung disease. In Europe, the all-cause burden of Aspergillus-related lung disease exceeds 2 million cases per annum, including up to 50,000 potentially fatal cases of invasive aspergillosis. Due to the low efficiency of current therapy, the mortality rate associated with aspergilloses remains unacceptably high; encouragingly, the use of the knowledge derived from our investigations to improve treatment has the potential to be beneficial for the prognosis and survival of patients. Therefore, our results will have a positive impact on public health.

2. Pharmaceutical companies seeking novel antifungal drugs. The pipeline for new antifungal compounds is sparse and antifungal resistance is advancing. Given the proximity of multiple spin-out antifungal drug discovery companies (F2G, Blueberry Therapeutics and Evotech) to the Manchester Fungal Infection Group and the resultant connectivity of academic and pharmaceutical research ongoing in this geographical domain it is certain that new and critical inter-sectorial collaborations will be founded to seek for novel antifungal therapies directed against the disclosed molecular targets. Therefore, my results will be exploitable by the commercial private sector, having potential to give an economic benefit to UK based companies, and fostering the competitiveness of the UK. 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.

3. 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]. The utilization of our identified targets to develop novel therapies and the implementation of such therapies in medical practise would give medical doctors an alternative to the low efficient antifungal treatments currently in use.

4. Scientists seeking novel antibacterial therapies. Sulphur metabolism has been extensively studied both in bacteria and fungi. However, although it is also well established that metabolism is an essential trait of pathogenic species, the relevance of sulphur metabolism for pathogenicity has been neglected. Just in the last few years it has started to receive attention in some bacterial species, as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Neisseria meningitides. This understudied field has the potential to undercover novel traits of virulence which can be exploited to fight many types of infections. For instance, many sulphur-related pathways and enzymatic reactions performed by microbes are different from those in mammals, highlighting the potential to use some of these processes for treatment. Sulphate reducing bacteria produce H2S as an end product of the dissimilatory reduction of sulphate used to obtain energy. These bacteria are present in the digestive tract, where play a role in the onset and perpetuation of inflammatory diseases, and in the oral cavity, where a correlation with other pathogens has been demonstrated. This suggests a possible connection between the presence of external sources of H2S and virulence. Therefore, the production of H2S itself and/or the putatively triggered sulfhydration of other pathogenic species in the human body may constitute novel virulence traits to be targeted to fight infections.

5. Scientists and industries pursuing the advancement of host-pathogen interaction technologies. This study will improve systems approaches in Aspergilli.
Description Atracción de Talento Modalidad 1
Amount € 333,050 (EUR)
Funding ID 2020-T1/BMD-20011 
Organisation Comunidad de Madrid 
Sector Public
Country Spain
Start 01/2022 
End 12/2026
Description Scholarship
Amount £94,567 (GBP)
Funding ID bsac-2016-0049 
Organisation British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 08/2021
Title Aspergillus fumigatus mutant strain 
Description Multiple genetically modified fungal strains 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Characterisation of fungal virulence mechanisms 
Title Episomal over-expression of genes in Aspergillus fumigatus 
Description We have constructed a plasmid to episomally over-express any ORF in Aspergillus fumigatus. It contains the AMA1 auto-replication sequence (for maintenance), the hygromycin-B resistance encoding gene (for selection), and the hspA A. fumigatus strong promoter (to control transcription) 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We will include this plasmid (tool) in a manuscript soon and then make it publicly available. This plasmid allows quick and easy investigations of the role of over-expressing a gene in A. fumigatus (or other fungal species) 
Title Sulfhydration mediated host-pathogen interaction 
Description We have created a cystathionine-gamma-lyase deficient cell line using CrispR/Cas9 technology and utilise this line and its parental strain to measure the level of sulfhydration in host and pathogen proteins using a fluorescent probe and fluorescence microscopy. 
Type Of Material Cell line 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact In the future other groups will be able to investigate the relevance of protein sulfhydration for the host-pathogen interaction using cell line cultures (selecting the relevant cell line accordingly to the pathogen investigated); therefore, the number of animals will be reduced. 
Title MTBLS1636: Targeting methionine synthase in a fungal pathogen causes a metabolic imbalance that impacts cell energetics, growth and virulence 
Description Metabolome of A. fumigatus metH_tetOFF and wt strains after dox addition 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This dataset permitted understanding why fungal methionine synthase is essential for fungal viability 
Title Persulfidated proteins in A. fumigatus 
Description A persulfidated enriched protein fraction was identified by mass spectrometry. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact As soon as the pape is published (currently under review) it will be made available. It will permit understand the activities that are modulated by protein persulfidation in this fungal pathogen. 
Description Establishing sulfhydration detection protocols in Aspergillus fumigatus proteins 
Organisation University of Bordeaux
Department Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Genetics
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I investigate sulfhydration in the human fungal pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus, whereas Milos Filipovic investigates signalling roles of this protein modification in the human gut. Therefore, our collaboration will on the one hand establish Milos as an eminence in sulfhydration research, working across kingdoms, and on the other hand will facilitate the understanding of the molecular basis of his models.
Collaborator Contribution As an expert in sulfhydration, Milos has developed a novel tag-switch method to detect sulfhydration modification of proteins. He provides required probes as well as technical assistance to detect sulfhydration in Aspergillus fumigatus proteins
Impact I am able to detect sulfhydrated proteins in Aspergillus fumigatus
Start Year 2016
Description Impact of sulfhydration for Aspergillus fumigatus virulence 
Organisation Medical University of Wurzburg
Department Department of Pharmacology
Country Germany 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Provide scientific question and Aspergillus fumigatus strains
Collaborator Contribution Partner is holder of the transgenic mouse line apropiate to answer the scientific question. Animal model of pulmonary aspergillosis will be performed in his laboratory.
Impact Animal models currently in process
Start Year 2017
Description Studies of Aspergillus resistance and persistence to azoles 
Organisation Tel Aviv University
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaboration of research projects leading to publications
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration of research projects leading to publications
Start Year 2021
Description Volatile Sulphur Compound production by Aspergillus fumigatus 
Organisation Pasteur Institute, Paris
Country France 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The collaborators will be authors in the publication that will result
Collaborator Contribution They have extracted the VSCs produced by Aspergillus fumigatus by SPME and analyse the m by GC_MS
Impact Th collaboration will result in a publication.
Start Year 2016
Description Semianr to Patient Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact Once a month patients that attend the clinics at the National Centre for Aspergillosis (Hospital of South Manchester) have a meeting. Among other activities organized, a seminar is given to explain them research and other activities related with the aspergillosis disease. I gave them one seminar explaining one of my research topics, and how it will be beneficial for patients in the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Talk to Primary School Students 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I gave a (zoom) presentation to students of the Beaver Road Primary School (Manchester) about what it means to be a scientist and how to investigate what pathogens do. The teacher and several other children reported an increased interest in getting to know more about science and doing experiments
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020