Rhodococcus equi causes fatal pyogranulomatous pneumonia in foals and immunocompromised animals and humans. Despite its importance, there is currently no effective vaccine against the disease. The actinobacteria R. equi and the human pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis are related, and both cause pulmonary diseases. Recently, we have shown that essential steps in the cholesterol catabolic pathway are involved in the pathogenicity of M. tuberculosis. Bioinformatic analysis revealed the presence of a similar cholesterol catabolic gene cluster in R. equi. Orthologs of predicted M. tuberculosis virulence genes located within this cluster, i.e. ipdA (rv3551), ipdB (rv3552), fadA6 and fadE30, were identified in R. equi RE1 and inactivated. The ipdA and ipdB genes of R. equi RE1 appear to constitute the α-subunit and β-subunit, respectively, of a heterodimeric coenzyme A transferase. Mutant strains RE1ΔipdAB and RE1ΔfadE30, but not RE1ΔfadA6, were impaired in growth on the steroid catabolic pathway intermediates 4-androstene-3,17-dione (AD) and 3aα-H-4α(3′-propionic acid)-5α-hydroxy-7aβ-methylhexahydro-1-indanone (5α-hydroxy-methylhexahydro-1-indanone propionate; 5OH-HIP). Interestingly, RE1ΔipdAB and RE1ΔfadE30, but not RE1ΔfadA6, also displayed an attenuated phenotype in a macrophage infection assay. Gene products important for growth on 5OH-HIP, as part of the steroid catabolic pathway, thus appear to act as factors involved in the pathogenicity of R. equi. Challenge experiments showed that RE1ΔipdAB could be safely administered intratracheally to 2 to 5 week-old foals and oral immunization of foals even elicited a substantial protective immunity against a virulent R. equi strain. Our data show that genes involved in steroid catabolism are promising targets for the development of a live-attenuated vaccine against R. equi infections
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