Cord factor as an invisibility cloak? A hypothesis for asymptomatic TB persistence

Robert L. Hunter, Shen An Hwang, Chinnaswamy Jagannath, Jeffrey K. Actor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) has long been known to persist in grossly normal tissues even in people with active lesions and granulomas in other parts of the body. We recently reported that post-primary TB begins as an asymptomatic infection that slowly progresses, accumulating materials for a massive necrotizing reaction that results in cavitation. This paper explores the possible roles of trehalose 6,6′ dimycolate (TDM) or cord factor in the ability of MTB to persist in such lesions without producing inflammation. TDM is unique in that it has three distinct sets of biologic activities depending on its physical conformation. As a single molecule, TDM stimulates macrophage C-type lectin receptors including Mincle. TDM can also form three crystal like structures, cylindrical micelles, intercalated bilayer and monolayer, that have distinct non receptor driven activities that depend on modulation of interactions with water. In the monolayer form, TDM is highly toxic and destroys cells in minutes upon contact. The cylindrical micelles and an intercalated bilayer have surfaces composed entirely of trehalose which protect MTB from killing in macrophages. Here we review evidence that these trehalose surfaces bind water. We speculate that this immobilized water constituites of an “invisibility cloak” that facilitates the persistence of MTB in multiple cell types without producing inflammation, even in highly immune individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S2-S8
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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