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Summary

The intracellular bacterial pathogen Coxiella burnetii is a category B select agent that causes human Q fever. In vivo, C. burnetii targets alveolar macrophages wherein the pathogen replicates in a lysosome-like parasitophorous vacuole (PV). In vitro, C. burnetii infects a variety of cultured cell lines that have collectively been used to model the pathogen's infectious cycle. However, differences in the cellular response to infection have been observed, and virulent C. burnetii isolate infection of host cells has not been well defined. Because alveolar macrophages are routinely implicated in disease, we established primary human alveolar macrophages (hAMs) as an in vitro model of C. burnetii–host cell interactions. C. burnetii pathotypes, including acute disease and endocarditis isolates, replicated in hAMs, albeit with unique PV properties. Each isolate replicated in large, typical PV and small, non-fused vacuoles, and lipid droplets were present in avirulent C. burnetii PV. Interestingly, a subset of small vacuoles harboured single organisms undergoing degradation. Prototypical PV formation and bacterial growth in hAMs required a functional type IV secretion system, indicating C. burnetii secretes effector proteins that control macrophage functions. Avirulent C. burnetii promoted sustained activation of Akt and Erk1/2 pro-survival kinases and short-termphosphorylation of stress-related p38. Avirulent organisms also triggered a robust, early pro-inflammatory response characterized by increased secretion of TNF-α and IL-6, while virulent isolates elicited substantially reduced secretion of these cytokines. A corresponding increase in pro- and mature IL-1β occurred in hAMs infected with avirulent C. burnetii, while little accumulation was observed following infection with virulent isolates. Finally, treatment of hAMs with IFN-γ controlled intracellular replication, supporting a role for this antibacterial insult in the host response to C. burnetii. Collectively, the current results demonstrate the hAM model is a human disease-relevant platform for defining novel innate immune responses to C. burnetii.