BACKGROUND: Treatment initiation rapidly kills most drug-susceptible Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but a bacterial subpopulation tolerates prolonged drug exposure. We evaluated drug-tolerant bacilli in human sputum by comparing messenger RNA (mRNA) expression of drug-tolerant bacilli that survive the early bactericidal phase with treatment-naive bacilli.
METHODS: M. tuberculosis gene expression was quantified via reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction in serial sputa from 17 Ugandans treated for drug-susceptible pulmonary tuberculosis.
RESULTS: Within 4 days, bacterial mRNA abundance declined >98%, indicating rapid killing. Thereafter, the rate of decline slowed >94%, indicating drug tolerance. After 14 days, 16S ribosomal RNA transcripts/genome declined 96%, indicating slow growth. Drug-tolerant bacilli displayed marked downregulation of genes associated with growth, metabolism, and lipid synthesis and upregulation in stress responses and key regulatory categories-including stress-associated sigma factors, transcription factors, and toxin-antitoxin genes. Drug efflux pumps were upregulated. The isoniazid stress signature was induced by initial drug exposure, then disappeared after 4 days.
CONCLUSIONS: Transcriptional patterns suggest that drug-tolerant bacilli in sputum are in a slow-growing, metabolically and synthetically downregulated state. Absence of the isoniazid stress signature in drug-tolerant bacilli indicates that physiological state influences drug responsiveness in vivo. These results identify novel drug targets that should aid in development of novel shorter tuberculosis treatment regimens.