Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in the world resulting from a single bacterial infection. Despite its enormous burden on world health, little is known about the molecular mechanisms of pathogenesis of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Bacterial multiplication and concomitant tissue damage within an infected host, including experimentally infected mice, occurs primarily in the lungs - the favoured niche of M. tuberculosis. Although it has been proposed that the distinctive cell wall of M. tuberculosis is important for virulence, rigorous genetic proof has been lacking. Here, using signature-tagged mutagenesis, we isolated three attenuated M. tuberculosis mutants that cannot synthesize or transport a complex, cell wall-associated lipid called phthiocerol dimycocerosate (PDIM) which is found only in pathogenic mycobacteria. Two mutants have transposon insertions affecting genes implicated in PDIM synthesis; the third has a disruption in a gene encoding a large transmembrane protein required for proper subcellular localization of PDIM. Synthesis and transport of this complex lipid is only required for growth in the lung; all three mutants are unaffected for growth in the liver and spleen. This clearly shows that a lipid is required for M. tuberculosis virulence.
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