Ehrlichia chaffeensis TRP120 Is a Wnt Ligand Mimetic That Interacts with Wnt Receptors and Contains a Novel Repetitive Short Linear Motif That Activates Wnt Signaling

Madison R. Rogan, La Nisha L. Patterson, Caitlan D. Byerly, Tian Luo, Slobodan Paessler, Veljko Veljkovic, Bethany Quade, Jere W. McBride

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Ehrlichia chaffeensis expresses the TRP120 multifunctional effector, which is known to play a role in phagocytic entry, on the surface of infectious dense-cored ehrlichiae, but a cognate host receptor has not been identified. We recently reported that E. chaffeensis activates canonical Wnt signaling in monocytes to promote bacterial uptake and intracellular survival and that TRP120 was involved in this activation event. To identify the specific mechanism of pathway activation, we hypothesized that TRP120 is a Wnt signaling ligand mimetic that initiates Wnt pathway activity through direct interaction with the Wnt pathway Frizzled family of receptors. In this study, we used confocal immunofluorescence microscopy to demonstrate very strong colocalization between E. chaffeensis and Fzd2, 4, 5, 7, and 9 as well as coreceptor LRP5 at 1 to 3 h postinfection. Direct binding between TRP120 and multiple Fzd receptors was further confirmed by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and surface plasmon resonance (SPR). Interfering RNA knockdown of Wnt receptors, coreceptors, and signaling pathway components significantly reduced E. chaffeensis infection, demonstrating that complex and redundant interactions are involved in Wnt pathway exploitation. We utilized in silico approaches to identify a repetitive short linear motif (SLiM) in TRP120 that is homologous to Wnt ligands and used mutant SLiM peptides and an α-TRP120-Wnt-SLiM antibody to demonstrate that the TRP120 Wnt SLiM activates the canonical Wnt pathway and promotes E. chaffeensis infection. This study reports the first example of bacterial mimicry of Wnt pathway ligands and highlights a pathogenic mechanism with potential for targeting by antimicrobial therapeutics. Importance Upon infecting mammalian hosts, Ehrlichia chaffeensis establishes a replicative niche in microbe-eating immune system cells where it expertly orchestrates infection and spread. One of the ways Ehrlichia survives within these phagocytes is by activating evolutionarily conserved signaling pathways including the Wnt pathway; however, the molecular details of pathway hijacking have not been defined. This study is significant because it identifies an ehrlichial protein that directly interacts with components of the Wnt receptor complex, influencing pathway activity and promoting infection. Consequentially, Ehrlichia serves as a unique tool to investigate the intricacies of how pathogens repurpose human immune cell signaling and provides an opportunity to better understand many cellular processes in health and disease. Furthermore, understanding how this bacterium utilizes its small genome to survive within cells that evolved to destroy pathogens will facilitate the development of antibacterial therapeutics that could target Ehrlichia as well as other intracellular agents of human disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00216-21
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Ehrlichia chaffeensis
  • SLiM
  • TRP120
  • Wnt ligand
  • tandem repeat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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