Opportunistic infections, such as aspergillosis, are among the most serious complications suffered by immunocompromised patients. Aspergillus fumigatus and other pathogenic fungi synthesize a toxic epipolythiodioxopiperazine metabolite called gliotoxin. Gliotoxin exhibits profound immunosuppressive activity in vivo. It induces apoptosis in thymocytes, splenocytes, and mesenteric lymph node cells and can selectively deplete bone marrow of mature lymphocytes. The molecular mechanism by which gliotoxin exerts these effects remains unknown. Here, we report that nanomolar concentrations of gliotoxin inhibited the activation of transcription factor NF-kappaB in response to a variety of stimuli in T and B cells. The effect of gliotoxin was specific because, at the same concentrations, the toxin did not affect activation of the transcription factor NF-AT or of interferon-responsive signal transducers and activators of transcription. Likewise, the activity of the constitutively DNA-binding transcription factors Oct-1 and cyclic AMP response element binding protein (CREB), as well as the activation of protein tyrosine kinases p56lck and p59fyn, was not altered by gliotoxin. Very high concentrations of gliotoxin prevented NF-kappaB DNA binding in vitro. However, in intact cells, inhibition of NF-kappaB did not occur at the level of DNA binding; rather, the toxin appeared to prevent degradation of IkappaB-alpha, NF-kappaB's inhibitory subunit. Our data raise the possibility that the immunosuppression observed during aspergillosis results in part from gliotoxin-mediated NF-kappaB inhibition.

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