Mycobacterium tuberculosis serine/threonine protein kinases (STPKs) are key regulators of growth and metabolism; however, evidence for their roles in virulence is limited. In a preliminary screen based on comparative expression between strains H37Rv and H37Ra, six STPK genes, pknD, pknG, pknH, pknJ, pknK and pknL, showed higher expression in H37Rv. In the second screen, STPK expression was analysed in H37Rv-infected human macrophages. Interestingly, significant expression of pknK was detected only at 18 h post-infection, suggesting its involvement in early infection events. We have investigated the roles of PknK in vitro and in vivo. PknK levels were induced under stationary phase and deletion of pknK resulted in increased resistance of the mutant to acidic pH, hypoxia, oxidative and stationary-phase stresses in vitro. These results, together with the increased survival of the ΔpknK strain during persistent infection in mice, reveal a role for PknK in adaptive mechanisms that slow the growth of mycobacteria. A novel finding of this study was the inhibition of growth of ΔpknK strain during acute infection in mice that correlated with the significant upregulation of tumour necrosis factor as well as the simultaneous downregulation of interleukin-12p40, interferon-γ and induced nitric oxide synthase transcripts. Finally, we provide evidence for the localization of PknK during infection and discuss its implications in pathogenesis.
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