Rickettsia (R.) helvetica is the most prevalent rickettsia found in Ixodes ricinus ticks in Germany. Several studies reported antibodies against R. helvetica up to 12.5% in humans investigated, however, fulminant clinical cases are rare indicating a rather low pathogenicity compared to other rickettsiae. We investigated growth characteristics of R. helvetica isolate AS819 in two different eukaryotic cell lines with focus on ultra-structural changes of host cells during infection determined by confocal laser scanning microscopy. Further investigations included partially sequencing of rickA, sca4 and sca2 genes, which have been reported to encode proteins involved in cell-to-cell spread and virulence in some rickettsiae. R. helvetica grew constantly but slowly in both cell lines used. Confocal laser scanning microscopy revealed that the dissemination of R. helvetica AS819 in both cell lines was rather mediated by cell break-down and bacterial release than cell-to-cell spread. The cytoskeleton of both investigated eukaryotic cell lines was not altered. R. helvetica possesses rickA, but its expression is not sufficient to promote actin-based motility as demonstrated by confocal laser scanning microscopy. Hypothetical Sca2 and Sca4 proteins were deduced from nucleotide gene sequences but the predicted amino acid sequences were disrupted or truncated compared to other rickettsiae most likely resulting in non-functional proteins. Taken together, these results might give a first hint to the underlying causes of the reduced virulence and pathogenicity of R. helvetica.
Speck, S., Kern, T., Aistleitner, K., Dilcher, M., Dobler, G., & Essbauer, S. (2018). In vitro studies of Rickettsia-host cell interactions: Confocal laser scanning microscopy of Rickettsia helvetica-infected eukaryotic cell lines. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 12(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0006151