Non-genetic phenotypic variations play a critical role in the adaption to environmental changes in microbial organisms. Candida albicans, a major human fungal pathogen, can switch between several morphological phenotypes. This ability is critical for its commensal lifestyle and for its ability to cause infections. Here, we report the discovery of a novel morphological form in C. albicans, referred to as the “gray” phenotype, which forms a tristable phenotypic switching system with the previously reported white and opaque phenotypes. White, gray, and opaque cell types differ in a number of aspects including cellular and colony appearances, mating competency, secreted aspartyl proteinase (Sap) activities, and virulence. Of the three cell types, gray cells exhibit the highest Sap activity and the highest ability to cause cutaneous infections. The three phenotypes form a tristable phenotypic switching system, which is independent of the regulation of the mating type locus ( MTL). Gray cells mate over 1,000 times more efficiently than do white cells, but less efficiently than do opaque cells. We further demonstrate that the master regulator of white-opaque switching, Wor1, is essential for opaque cell formation, but is not required for white-gray transitions. The Efg1 regulator is required for maintenance of the white phenotype, but is not required for gray-opaque transitions. Interestingly, the wor1/wor1 efg1/efg1 double mutant is locked in the gray phenotype, suggesting that Wor1 and Efg1 could function coordinately and play a central role in the regulation of gray cell formation. Global transcriptional analysis indicates that white, gray, and opaque cells exhibit distinct gene expression profiles, which partly explain their differences in causing infections, adaptation ability to diverse host niches, metabolic profiles, and stress responses. Therefore, the white-gray-opaque tristable phenotypic switching system in C. albicans may play a significant role in a wide range of biological aspects in this common commensal and pathogenic fungus.
The capacity of the yeast Candida albicans to grow in several cellular forms—a phenomenon known as phenotypic plasticity—is critical for its survival and for its ability to thrive and cause infection in the human host. In this study, we report a novel form of C. albicans, the “gray” phenotype, which may enhance fitness and confer an adaptive advantage for this important pathogenic yeast in certain host environments. The gray cell type, together with the previously discovered “white” and “opaque” cell types, forms a tristable phenotypic switching system. The three phenotypes differ in their cellular and colony appearance, their global transcriptional profiles, their production of secreted aspartyl proteinases (enzymes that degrade host tissues and release nutrients), and their virulence in different infection models. Moreover, gray cells exhibit a level of mating competency that is intermediate between that of white and opaque cells. We further demonstrate that two key transcriptional regulators, Wor1 and Efg1, play central roles in the regulation of the “white-gray-opaque” tristable transitions. Our study reveals a multi-stable and heritable switching system, indicating that the adoption of distinct morphological forms in response to environmental change could be much more elaborate than previously thought.