Lalita Ramakrishnan

University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

We are interested in understanding the pathogenesis of tuberculosis and the basis of vastly different susceptibilities to this disease. Tuberculous infection results in the formation of granulomas, complex immune structures that are composed of differentiated macrophages, lymphocytes and other immune cells. However, bacteria can persist within granulomas despite the development of antigen-specific immunity. To understand the mechanistic basis of mycobacterial persistence, the mechanisms of granuloma formation and its role in tuberculosis, we have developed the zebrafish as model to study immunity to tuberculosis. Zebrafish are naturally susceptible to tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium marinum, a close genetic relative of M. tuberculosis, the agent of human tuberculosis. We exploit the optical transparency and genetic tractability of the zebrafish to monitor the infection process in real-time and modulate it using genetically defined host and bacterial mutants. We have employed both forward and reverse genetics to understand the basis of host resistance and susceptibility to TB. Our research is shedding light on TB pathogenesis as well as fundamental mechanisms of immune cell chemotaxis, adhesion and aggregation as well as immune regulation. Detailed information about the sequential interactions among the host and the pathogen, the cell types, and the molecules involved has yielded surprising insights into this ancient disease. We have identified a number of host evasion strategies deployed by pathogenic mycobacteria as well as host responses that provide broad insights into host immunity. Findings made in the zebrafish have been borne out in human populations and are informing new strategies for intervention.