Ehrlichia SLiM ligand mimetic activates Hedgehog signaling to engage a BCL-2 antiapoptotic cellular program

Caitlan D. Byerly, Shubhajit Mitra, La Nisha L. Patterson, Nicholas A. Pittner, Thangam S. Velayutham, Slobodan Paessler, Veljko Veljkovic, Jere W. McBride

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ehrlichia chaffeensis (E. chaffeensis) has evolved eukaryotic ligand mimicry to repurpose multiple cellular signaling pathways for immune evasion. In this investigation, we demonstrate that TRP120 has a novel repetitive short liner motif (SLiM) that activates the evolutionarily conserved Hedgehog (Hh) signaling pathway to inhibit apoptosis. In silico analysis revealed that TRP120 has sequence and functional similarity with Hh ligands and a candidate Hh ligand SLiM was identified. siRNA knockdown of Hh signaling and transcriptional components significantly reduced infection. Co-immunoprecipitation and surface plasmon resonance demonstrated that rTRP120-TR interacted directly with Hh receptor Patched-2 (PTCH2). E. chaffeensis infection resulted in early upregulation of Hh transcription factor GLI-1 and regulation of Hh target genes. Moreover, soluble recombinant TRP120 (rTRP120) activated Hh and induced gene expression consistent with the eukaryotic Hh ligand. The TRP120-Hh-SLiM (NPEVLIKD) induced nuclear translocation of GLI-1 in THP-1 cells and primary human monocytes and induced a rapid and expansive activation of Hh pathway target genes. Furthermore, Hh activation was blocked by an α-TRP120-Hh-SLiM antibody. TRP120-Hh-SLiM significantly increased levels of Hh target, anti-apoptotic protein B-cell lymphoma 2 (BCL-2), and siRNA knockdown of BCL-2 dramatically inhibited infection. Blocking Hh signaling with the inhibitor Vismodegib, induced a pro-apoptotic cellular program defined by decreased mitochondria membrane potential, significant reductions in BCL-2, activation of caspase 3 and 9, and increased apoptotic cells. This study reveals a novel E. chaffeensis SLiM ligand mimetic that activates Hh signaling to maintain E. chaffeensis infection by engaging a BCL-2 anti-apoptotic cellular program.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1010345
JournalPLoS pathogens
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Virology


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