Azole resistance-associated regulatory motifs within the promoter of cyp51A in Aspergillus fumigatus.
Aspergillus fumigatus is one of the deadliest fungal species, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Because azoles provide the preferred first-line option for treatment of aspergillosis, the increase in rates of resistance and the poor therapeutic outcomes for patients infected with a resistant isolate constitute a serious global health threat. Azole resistance is frequently associated with specific tandem repeat duplications of a promoter element upstream of cyp51A, the gene that encodes the target for this drug class in A. fumigatus. This promoter element is recognized by the activating transcription factors SrbA and AtrR. This region also provides a docking platform for the CCAAT-binding complex (CBC) and HapX, which cooperate in the regulation of genes involved in iron-consuming pathways, including cyp51A. Here, we studied the regulatory contributions of SrbA, AtrR, CBC, and HapX binding sites to cyp51A expression and azole resistance under different iron availability employing promoter mutational analysis and protein-DNA interaction analysis. This strategy revealed iron status-dependent and -independent roles of these regulatory elements. We show that promoter occupation by both AtrR and SrbA is required for iron-independent steady-state transcriptional activation of cyp51A and its induction during short-term iron exposure relies on HapX binding. We further reveal the HapX binding site as a repressor element, disruption of which increases cyp51A expression and azole resistance regardless of iron availability. First-line treatment of aspergillosis typically involves the use of azole antifungals. Worryingly, their future clinical use is challenged by an alarming increase in resistance. Therapeutic outcomes for such patients are poor due to delays in switching to alternative treatments and reduced efficacy of salvage therapeutics. Our lack of understanding of the molecular mechanisms that underpin resistance hampers our ability to develop novel therapeutic interventions. In this work, we dissect the regulatory motifs associated with azole resistance in the promoter of the gene that encodes the azole drug target Cyp51A. These motifs include binding platforms for SrbA and AtrR, as well as the CCAAT-binding complex and HapX. Employing mutational analyses, we uncovered crucial cyp51A-activating and -repressing functions of the binding sites. Remarkably, disrupting binding of the iron regulator HapX increased cyp51A expression and azole resistance in an iron-independent manner.