Screening for immune biomarkers associated with infection or protection against Ehrlichia ruminantium by RNA-sequencing analysis.

16 Feb 2024
Pretorius A, Nefefe T, Thema N, Liebenberg J, Steyn H, van Kleef M
Heartwater is one of the most economically important tick-borne fatal diseases of livestock. The disease is caused by the bacteria Ehrlichia ruminantium transmitted by Amblyomma ticks. Although there is evidence that interferon-gamma controls E. ruminantium growth and that cellular immune responses are protective, an effective recombinant vaccine for this disease is lacking. Analyses of markers associated with infection as well as protection will lead to a better understanding of the E. ruminantium immune response and corresponding pathways induced in sheep peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) will assist in development of such a vaccine. In this study, Biomarkers of infection (BMI) were identified as uniquely expressed genes during primary infection and biomarkers of protection (BMP) associated with immune to heartwater were identified post challenge. Sheep were experimentally infected and challenged with E. ruminantium infected ticks. The immune phenotypic and transcriptome profile of their PBMC were compared to their own naïve PBMC collected before infection. The study revealed 305 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) as BMI, of these 17 were upregulated at all three time-points investigated. These DEGs, form part of the bacterial invasion of epithelial cells Kyoto Encyclopaedia of Genes and Genomes (KEGG) pathway, and others detected from day 1 post infection and are considered predictive markers for early heartwater infection in ruminants. Similarly, a total of 332 DEGs were identified as BMP, of these 100 were upregulated and 75 were downregulated at all three time-points investigated. However, at D1PC most DEGs were downregulated (n = 1312) that correlated with a reduction in the % CD4 and CD8 T cells detected with flow cytometry. KEGG pathway analyses showed complete down regulation of T cell specific pathways possibly due to homing of immune cells to the site of infection after acquired immunity developed. At D4PC, expression levels of most of these downregulated genes increased and by D6PC they were upregulated. This indicates that the sampling time-point for biomarker analyses is important when results for acquired immune responses are inferred. This data identified DEGs that could be considered as biomarkers of protective immunity that can be used for identification of vaccine antigens and provides a strong foundation to further development of heartwater recombinant vaccines.