Morphological switch is tightly coupled with the pathogenesis of many dimorphic fungal pathogens. Cryptococcus neoformans, the major causative agent of cryptococcal meningitis, mostly presents as the yeast form but is capable of switching to the hyphal form. The filamentous form has long been associated with attenuated virulence, yet the underlying mechanism remains elusive. We previously identified the master regulator Znf2 that controls the yeast-to-hypha transition in Cryptococcus. Activation of Znf2 promotes hyphal formation and abolishes fungal virulence in vivo. Here we demonstrated that the cryptococcal strain overexpressing ZNF2 elicited strong and yet temporally confined proinflammatory responses in the early stage of infection. In contrast, exacerbated inflammation in mice infected with the wild-type (WT) strain showed that they were unable to control the infection. Animals inoculated with this filamentous Cryptococcus strain had fewer pulmonary eosinophils and CD11c+ CD11b+ cells than animals inoculated with WT yeast. Moreover, mice infected with this strain developed protective Th1-or Th17-type T cell responses. These findings suggest that the virulence attenuation of the filamentous form is likely due to its elicitation of protective host responses. The antivirulence effect of Znf2 was independent of two previously identified factors downstream of Znf2. Interestingly, mucosal immunizations with high doses of ZNF2-overexpressing cells, either in the live or heat-killed form, offered 100% protection to the host from a subsequent challenge with the otherwise lethal clinical strain H99. Our results demonstrate that heat-resistant cellular components presented in cryptococcal cells with activated ZNF2 elicit protective host immune responses. These findings could facilitate future research on novel immunological therapies.
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