Intracellular Staphylococcus aureus modulates host central carbon metabolism to activate autophagy

Natalia Bravo-Santano, James K Ellis, Luis M Mateos, Yolanda Calle-Patino, Hector C Keun, Volker Behrends, Michal Letek Polberg

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Staphylococcus aureus is a facultative intracellular pathogen that invades and replicates within many types of phagocytic and nonphagocytic cells. During intracellular infection, S. aureus is capable of subverting xenophagy and escaping to the cytosol of the host cell. Furthermore, drug-induced autophagy facilitates the intracellular replication of S. aureus, but the reasons behind this are unclear. Here, we have studied the host central carbon metabolism during S. aureus intracellular infection. We found extensive metabolic rerouting and detected several distinct metabolic changes that suggested starvation-induced autophagic flux in infected cells. These changes included increased uptake but lower intracellular levels of glucose and low abundance of several essential amino acids, as well as markedly upregulated glutaminolysis. Furthermore, we show that AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) phosphorylation levels are significantly increased in infected cells. Interestingly, while autophagy was activated in response to S. aureus invasion, most of the autophagosomes detected in infected cells did not contain bacteria, suggesting that S. aureus induces the autophagic flux during cell invasion for energy generation and nutrient scavenging. Accordingly, AMPK inhibition halted S. aureus intracellular proliferation.

Staphylococcus aureus escapes from immune recognition by invading a wide range of human cells. Once the pathogen becomes intracellular, the most important last resort antibiotics are not effective. Therefore, novel anti-infective therapies against intracellular S. aureus are urgently needed. Here, we have studied the physiological changes induced in the host cells by S. aureus during its intracellular proliferation. This is important, because the pathogen exploits the host cell’s metabolism for its own proliferation. We find that S. aureus severely depletes glucose and amino acid pools, which leads to increased breakdown of glutamine by the host cell in an attempt to meet its own metabolic needs. All of these metabolic changes activate autophagy in the host cell for nutrient scavenging and energy generation. The metabolic activation of autophagy could be used by the pathogen to sustain its own intracellular survival, making it an attractive target for novel anti-infectives.

© 2018 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See
Original languageEnglish
Article number00374-18
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
Issue number4
Early online date8 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2018


  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • autophagy
  • host cell
  • intracellular pathogen
  • metabolism

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