Enteric infections with attaching/effacing lesion-inducing bacterial pathogens are a worldwide health problem. A murine infection model with one such pathogen, Citrobacter rodentium, was used to elucidate the importance of the pleiotropic immune regulator, IL-6, in the pathogenesis of infection. IL-6 was strongly induced in colonic epithelial cells and macrophages upon C. rodentium infection and was required for effective host defense, because mice lacking IL-6 failed to control bacterial numbers 2-3 wk after infection and exhibited increased mortality. IL-6 was not needed for mounting effective T and B cell responses to the pathogens, nor was it important for induction of IFN-γ or TNF-α, cytokines involved in host defense against the bacteria, or the antibacterial effector, NO. Instead, IL-6 played a key role in mucosal protection, since its absence was associated with marked infection-induced apoptosis in the colonic epithelium and subsequent ulcerations. Cell culture studies confirmed that IL-6 protected colon epithelial cells directly against inducible apoptosis, which was accompanied by increased expression of an array of genes encoding anli-apoptotic proteins, including I5cl-xL, Mcl-1, cIAP-2, and Bcl-3. Ulcerations appeared to be pathogenetically important, because bacteria localized preferentially to those regions, and chemically induced colonic ulcerations promoted bacterial colonization. Furthermore, blood components likely present in ulcer exudates, particularly alanine, asparagine, and glycine, promoted bacterial growth. Thus, IL-6 is an important regulator of host defense against C. rodentium by protecting the mucosa against ulcerations which can act as a microbial niche for the bacteria.
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