A FRET-Based Fluorogenic Trehalose Dimycolate Analogue for Probing Mycomembrane-Remodeling Enzymes of Mycobacteria

Nathan J. Holmes, Herbert W. Kavunja, Yong Yang, B. Dillon Vannest, Claudia N. Ramsey, Dana M. Gepford, Nicholas Banahene, Anne W. Poston, Brent F. Piligian, Donald R. Ronning, Anil K. Ojha, Benjamin M. Swarts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The mycobacterial outer membrane, or mycomembrane, is essential for the viability and virulence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and related pathogens. The mycomembrane is a dynamic structure, whose chemical composition and biophysical properties can change during stress to give an advantage to the bacterium. However, the mechanisms that govern mycomembrane remodeling and their significance to mycobacterial pathogenesis are still not well characterized. Recent studies have shown that trehalose dimycolate (TDM), a major glycolipid of the mycomembrane, is broken down by the mycobacteria-specific enzyme TDM hydrolase (Tdmh) in response to nutrient deprivation, a process which appears to modulate the mycomembrane to increase nutrient acquisition, but at the expense of stress tolerance. Tdmh activity thus balances the growth of M. tuberculosis during infection in a manner that is contingent upon host immunity. Current methods to probe Tdmh activity are limited, impeding the development of inhibitors and the investigation of the role of Tdmh in bacterial growth and persistence. Here, we describe the synthesis and evaluation of FRET-TDM, which is a fluorescence-quenched analogue of TDM that is designed to fluoresce upon hydrolysis by Tdmh and potentially other trehalose ester-degrading hydrolases involved in mycomembrane remodeling. We found that FRET-TDM was efficiently activated in vitro by recombinant Tdmh, generating a 100-fold increase in fluorescence. FRET-TDM was also efficiently activated in the presence of whole cells of Mycobacterium smegmatis and M. tuberculosis, but the observed signal was predominantly Tdmh-independent, suggesting that physiological levels of Tdmh are low and that other mycobacterial enzymes also hydrolyze the probe. The latter notion was confirmed by employing a native protein gel-based fluorescence assay to profile FRET-TDM-activating enzymes from M. smegmatis lysates. On the other hand, FRET-TDM was capable of detecting the activity of Tdmh in cells when it was overexpressed. Together, our data demonstrate that FRET-TDM is a convenient and sensitive in vitro probe of Tdmh activity, which will be beneficial for Tdmh enzymatic characterization and inhibitor screening. In more complex samples, for example, live cells or cell lysates, FRET-TDM can serve as a tool to probe Tdmh activity at elevated enzyme levels, and it may facilitate the identification and characterization of related hydrolases that are involved in mycomembrane remodeling. Our study also provides insights as to how the structure of FRET-TDM or related fluorogenic probes can be optimized to achieve improved specificity and sensitivity for detecting mycobacteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4348-4359
Number of pages12
JournalACS Omega
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 27 2019
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • General Chemical Engineering


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