Genomic and Molecular Identification of Genes Contributing to the Caspofungin Paradoxical Effect in <em>Aspergillus fumigatus</em>
Microbiol Spectr. 2022 Sep 12:e0051922. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.00519-22. Online ahead of print.
Aspergillus fumigatus is a deadly opportunistic fungal pathogen responsible for ~100,000 annual deaths. Azoles are the first line antifungal agent used against A. fumigatus, but azole resistance has rapidly evolved making treatment challenging. Caspofungin is an important second-line therapy against invasive pulmonary aspergillosis, a severe A. fumigatus infection. Caspofungin functions by inhibiting β-1,3-glucan synthesis, a primary and essential component of the fungal cell wall. A phenomenon termed the caspofungin paradoxical effect (CPE) has been observed in several fungal species where at higher concentrations of caspofungin, chitin replaces β-1,3-glucan, morphology returns to normal, and growth rate increases. CPE appears to occur in vivo, and it is therefore clinically important to better understand the genetic contributors to CPE. We applied genomewide association (GWA) analysis and molecular genetics to identify and validate candidate genes involved in CPE. We quantified CPE across 67 clinical isolates and conducted three independent GWA analyses to identify genetic variants associated with CPE. We identified 48 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with CPE. We used a CRISPR/Cas9 approach to generate gene deletion mutants for seven genes harboring candidate SNPs. Two null mutants, ΔAfu3g13230 and ΔAfu4g07080 (dscP), resulted in reduced basal growth rate and a loss of CPE. We further characterized the dscP phosphatase-null mutant and observed a significant reduction in conidia production and extremely high sensitivity to caspofungin at both low and high concentrations. Collectively, our work reveals the contribution of Afu3g13230 and dscP in CPE and sheds new light on the complex genetic interactions governing this phenotype. IMPORTANCE This is one of the first studies to apply genomewide association (GWA) analysis to identify genes involved in an Aspergillus fumigatus phenotype. A. fumigatus is an opportunistic fungal pathogen that causes hundreds of thousands of infections and ~100,000 deaths each year, and antifungal resistance has rapidly evolved in this species. A phenomenon called the caspofungin paradoxical effect (CPE) occurs in some isolates, where high concentrations of the drug lead to increased growth rate. There is clinical relevance in understanding the genetic basis of this phenotype, since caspofungin concentrations could lead to unintended adverse clinical outcomes in certain cases. Using GWA analysis, we identified several interesting candidate polymorphisms and genes and then generated gene deletion mutants to determine whether these genes were important for CPE. Two of these mutant strains (ΔAfu3g13230 and ΔAfu4g07080/ΔdscP) displayed a loss of the CPE. This study sheds light on the genes involved in clinically important phenotype CPE.