Cryptococcus spp. cause life-threatening fungal infection of the central nervous system (CNS), predominantly in patients with a compromised immune system. Why Cryptococcus neoformans has this remarkable tropism for the CNS is not clear. Recent research on cerebral pathogenesis of C. neoformans revealed a predominantly transcellular migration of cryptococci across the brain endothelium; however, the identities of key fungal virulence factors that function specifically to invade the CNS remain unresolved. Here we found that a novel, secreted metalloprotease (Mpr1) that we identified in the extracellular proteome of C. neoformans (CnMpr1) is required for establishing fungal disease in the CNS. Mpr1 belongs to a poorly characterized M36 class of fungalysins that are expressed in only some fungal species. A strain of C. neoformans lacking the gene encoding Mpr1 (mpr1Δ) failed to breach the endothelium in an in vitro model of the human blood-brain barrier (BBB). A mammalian host infected with the mpr1Δ null strain demonstrated significant improvement in survival due to a reduced brain fungal burden and lacked the brain pathology commonly associated with cryptococcal disease. The in vivo studies further indicate that Mpr1 is not required for fungal dissemination and Mpr1 likely targets the brain endothelium specifically. Remarkably, the sole expression of CnMPR1 in Saccharomyces cerevisiae resulted in a robust migration of yeast cells across the brain endothelium, demonstrating Mpr1's specific activity in breaching the BBB and suggesting that Mpr1 may function independently of the hyaluronic acid-CD44 pathway. This distinct role for Mpr1 may develop into innovative treatment options and facilitate a brain-specific drug delivery platform.
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