Tobacco smoking represents the leading preventable cause of death worldwide. Smoking is a recognised risk factor for several pathologies and is detrimental to host immune surveillance and defence. However, the impact of smoking on microbial residents of the nasopharyngeal cavity, in contact with cigarette smoke (CS), is lacking. Staphylococcus aureus is a major human pathogen that colonises the human nasopharynx and causes a wide range of infections. We investigated the impact of CS on specific virulence phenotypes important in S aureus pathogenesis. We observed strain-dependent differences following exposure to CS, namely growth inhibition, augmented biofilm formation, increased invasion of, and persistence within, bronchial alveolar epithelial cells. Additionally, we confirm the critical role of a functional accessory gene regulator (Agr) system in mediating increased biofilm development and host cell invasion and persistence following CS exposure. Furthermore, CS exposure resulted in reduced toxin production. Importantly, exposure of S aureus to CS accelerated the frequency of mutations and resulted in a significant increase in gentamicin-resistant small colony variant (SCV) formation. Mutational analysis revealed that CS induced SCVs emerge via the SOS response DNA mutagenic repair system. Taken together, our results suggest that CS redirects certain S aureus strains to a virulence profile associated with persistence.
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