Inhibition of the ULK1 protein complex suppresses Staphylococcus-induced autophagy and cell death

Radhi, Ohood A. and Davidson, Scott and Scott, Fiona and Zeng, Run X. and Jones, D. Heulyn and Tomkinson, Nick C. O. and Yu, Jun and Chan, Edmond Y.W. (2019) Inhibition of the ULK1 protein complex suppresses Staphylococcus-induced autophagy and cell death. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 294. pp. 14289-14307. ISSN 1083-351X (

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Autophagy plays multiple roles in host cells challenged with extracellular pathogens. Here, we aimed to explore whether autophagy inhibition could prevent bacterial infections. We first confirmed widely distinct patterns of autophagy responses in host cells infected with Staphylococcus aureus, as compared with Salmonella. Only infection with Staphylococcus produced strong accumulation of lipidated autophagy-related protein LC3B (LC3B-II). Infection with virulent Staphylococcus strains induced formation of p62-positive aggregates, suggestive of accumulated ubiquitinated targets. During Salmonella infection, bacteria remain enclosed by lysosomal-associated membrane protein 2 (LAMP2)-positive lysosomes, whereas virulent Staphylococcus apparently exited from enlarged lysosomes and invaded the cytoplasm. Surprisingly, Staphylococcus appeared to escape from the lysosome without generation of membrane-damage signals as detected by Galectin3 recruitment. In contrast, Salmonella infection produced high levels of lysosomal damage, consistent with a downstream antibacterial xenophagy response. Lastly, we studied the Unc-51-like autophagy-activating kinase 1 (ULK1) regulatory complex, including the essential subunit autophagy-related protein 13 (ATG13). Infection of cells with either Staphylococcus or Salmonella led to recruitment of ATG13 to sites of cytosolic bacterial cells to promote autophagosome formation. Of note, genetic targeting of ATG13 suppressed autophagy and the ability of Staphylococcus to infect and kill host cells. Two different ULK1 inhibitors also prevented Staphylococcus intracellular replication and host cell death. Interestingly, inhibition of the ULK1 pathway had the opposite effect on Salmonella, sensitizing cells to the infection. Our results suggest that ULK1 inhibitors may offer a potential strategy to impede cellular infection by Staphylococcus aureus.


Radhi, Ohood A. ORCID logoORCID:, Davidson, Scott ORCID logoORCID:, Scott, Fiona, Zeng, Run X., Jones, D. Heulyn, Tomkinson, Nick C. O. ORCID logoORCID:, Yu, Jun ORCID logoORCID: and Chan, Edmond Y.W.;